How to tell if someone is really listening by knowing ‘The Listening Position’

It’s pretty easy to tell if someone is bored and has totally zoned out when you’re talking.

  • They don’t make eye contact.
  • They fidget.
  • Sometimes they even nod their head and smile when you test them by saying something you know they disagree with. (Like telling a monarchist that the UK should be a republic.)

When someone makes this little pretence at listening, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know your words are falling on deaf ears.

But what if the person you’re talking to goes through the motions. In other words, they hold your gaze, and nod in the right places. How can you tell whether their mind is elsewhere? Is there a failsafe way to tell if someone is genuinely interested in what you’re saying? The answer is yes.


Here’s the giveaway that shows someone is listening intently

When you say something that grabs someone’s attention, they will instinctively lean forward. They can’t help themselves. So much so, that our founder, Richard Mullender, likens this unconscious, leaning-in movement, to a ‘tell’ in poker. He calls it the listening position, otherwise known as the, ‘You paid how much?’ position.


Like a ‘tell’ in poker, your body moves onto hyper alert

We’ll let Richard demonstrate:

Richard (Talking to his beloved on the phone)

‘Hi love, where you been? Oh yeah. Bond Street? Nice. New dress? Yeah, yeah, yeah…’

(Springing forward in his seat)


When someone says something that really interests us, our body takes over and we automatically move into the high alert listening position. ‘It’s the brain’s way of telling the body to wake up and smell the coffee’, Richard tells us.

Richard Mullender and Stephanie Wiseman listening


Here’s the twist

So now we can tell if something we’ve said has grabbed someone’s attention. But could we use the listening position to our advantage in another way? What if we deliberately put ourselves in the position during a conversation? Will it help us to listen better?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. An essential part of a hostage negotiator’s training – from the UK to the USA, and from Brazil to India – is to consciously assume the listening position before entering any negotiation.


We can fool our brains into high alert

It may be counter-intuitive (because we know we’re doing it) but by putting ourselves into the listening position we automatically listen better.

The Listening Position guide


Listen like a hostage negotiator

Over to Richard again; ‘Enter a room full of hostage negotiators waiting for the phone to ring and they’ll all be sitting in the listening position – even if they’ve been waiting there for hours.’

That sounds fine if you’re fooling your brain into high alert waiting for a phone call. But what if the person you’re talking to is sitting opposite you? Won’t you intimidate them?

Richard says ‘no’. And here’s why, ‘Yes, you’re leaning forward, which signals your interest, but there are two things you need to do to put your companion at ease.’

  1. The first is to keep your hands relaxed – so absolutely no clenched fists.
  2. The second is to place yourself, (starting with your chair) in a ten-to-two position. So you’re not directly opposite the person you’re talking to. Which means you’re not eyeballing them. Which gives them time to search their memory for the information they need, without feeling under pressure.

‘When you pressurise someone, they’re more likely to do something stupid, or to lie, and you don’t want that’, says Richard. ‘We want them relaxed and off guard so they give away secrets that we can turn into intelligence’.

Fascinating stuff!

And the last word from Richard?

‘Put yourself in the listening position. You’ll listen better.’


Richard Mullender demonstrates