I recently got some feedback that people have the impression that when they talk to me, I am not listening.

Usually, when starting a conversation with people, I acknowledge them with something like 'yeah, what about it/what is it?', or I respond to people calling my name with 'yeah, that's me, what's up?'.

Anyways, as the conversation progresses, often people start talking more and for longer periods of time. I've always been told not to interrupt people, so when this happens I just wait until I get the impression they are done talking/making their point and then try to answer their question/keep the conversation going otherwise.

When being told something funny, I smile, when it's something disgusting/disturbing I'm sure my facial expression changes as well. But apparently, for a substantial number of people, I give the impression of zoning out when having long talks, even when I try to maintain eye contact without staring (which I was also told is a good thing). I nod to answer rhetorical questions. As for my posture, depends a bit on who I'm talking with and when, I do sit up when at work, but it's also during conversations with friends when we're all being couch potatoes and slouching...

Are there any ways I can non-verbally communicate to people that yes, I am still paying attention to what they're telling me? I'm specifically interested in doing this non-verbally, so as not to interrupt the conversation.

Bonus points for someone that can write me an answer with sources!

  • 1
    Hard to say without seeing you 'in action'. When people go on these 'longer talking periods' do you the classic nodding, "mhm", "yes"? What's your body posture? Do you just slack around or are you in an active, engaging posture? Feb 22, 2018 at 10:47
  • I try avoiding interrupting the conversation at any cost, so no sounds. I do nod if people ask a sort of rhetorical question to encourage them to go on. I think the posture depends on who I'm talking with and when, e.g. me and my mom can have long conversations while we're both slouching on a couch... but in the office I tend to sit up straight at my desk anyway, a good posture when working is important.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Feb 22, 2018 at 10:50
  • 2
    Related, but from Japanese culture: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aizuchi
    – xehpuk
    Feb 22, 2018 at 13:47
  • Do they get your full attention or do you stare at something or even them maybe? For me intermittently changing what I look at, looking pensative etc works. Could you describe your body language?
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 22, 2018 at 19:17
  • Interesting question: if people find your polite non interruption impolite because they think you're not listening, wouldn't the polite thing to do be interrupt them?
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 22, 2018 at 19:19

6 Answers 6


Someone asked you in a comment:

When people go on these 'longer talking periods' do you the classic nodding, "mhm", "yes"?

You responded:

I try avoiding interrupting the conversation at any cost, so no sounds.

I feel like that may be your problem. The "classic mhm, yes" responses are called backchannels. It sounds like you're thinking of backchannels as being interruptions, and so you're avoiding them. But, at least in my culture, backchannels are not taken as interruptions; they're an important way for the listener to show their interest and attention to what the speaker is saying.

You should figure out how much people in your culture normally speak and vocalize while others are talking to them, and try to speak about the same amount.

  • 2
    Don't overdo it either :) My grandmother did, to a point where she was nodding her head non-stop when listening and almost "mhhmm"-ing frequently enough that she seemed to be humming a tune.
    – Flater
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:52

Though this is not what you asked for (non-verbal communication), I have found myself in situations like that way too often. Not sure if some people just like talking a lot or if they're used to being interrupted, but more often than not I found myself exclusively listening to someone talking nonstop for minutes, but to show them I'm paying attention without interrupting - I find interrupting incredibly grating and annoying both ways, which is why I make such a conscious effort not to interrupt unless very needed - I found out that one of the best strategies is spoken out loud but quick remarks.

For instance, if someone is making a point you agree with, besides the usual head nodding, you can make simple vocal sounds, such as "mhmm" or "hmm" when someone says something interesting. By making these sounds, you're signaling to the person (more than just with body language) that you're not only paying attention, but actually invested in the conversation. Nasal/vocal sounds in response to specific topics/statements that are audible enough for the person to hear, but also short and discrete enough as to not interrupt them, can help a lot with most situations.

In other scenarios, I found that short, but still vocal spoken responses are also fine. For example, if someone just said something you agree with/understand, a quick - but sound - "yeah", "uhuh", "right" or responses alike can be "squeezed in" into their monologue without necessarily disrupting them. I'm not sure about Netherlands (and sorry if it's different there), but in here (Brazil), it is actually welcome for people to vocally agree with what you're saying via quick remarks.

If they say something intriguing and are demonstrably excited about telling you, quick remarks such as "No way!", "Really?" or "Oh wow" give them validation that not only you're paying attention, but you're also actually interested in what they're saying. If it's a more formal/technical/professional environment, I personally prefer less "emotional", but still vocal, remarks: "yes", "no", "right", "I agree", "that's true", etc.

Now, if you really want to exclusively communicate through body language, here are some things I found helpful:

  1. Constant eye contact. Maybe in the Netherlands eye contact is not very welcome, but constantly looking in the eyes of who's talking shows that you're actively interested/paying attention. Without it, people might assume you're thinking about something else/distracted with your surroundings;
  2. Head nods all the way. Of course, don't break your neck by viciously shaking it around, but whenever someone says something you agree with, give them a confirmation nod. When they mention something weird, it's okay to push your head back a bit and make a confused/amused face. When they mention some course of action or train of thought of theirs nonchalantly, a simple shrug can also be seen as confirmation;
  3. Standing still might give them the impression that you're mechanically and methodically listening only. Changing positions constantly has worked really well to me. Cross your arms, put them on your pockets, step forwards/backwards. I'm not very fluent in hand gestures, but I've observed in my surroundings that people also use it when listening to others/giving them quick remarks.
  • 1
    Note, this can change to work with both formal and informal conversations. For instance, if I'm engaged in gossip with my girlfriend, a "wow" or "really?" can be used, but when I'm at work, I tend towards more "right" and "ok". Sometimes a small interruption with these will actually be better for the flow, when I say "Are you serious? What did Jenna expect to happen?" to my girlfriend, it gives her an opportunity to go into more detail, and shows that more engagement is here. +1
    – Anoplexian
    Feb 22, 2018 at 16:40

Things to do to let them know you're listening

I am not sure if it's common in the Netherlands, but try this. When you're talking, whether you are siting or standing, moving one hand under another arm and that other hand under the chin, it conveys that you're seriously listening to them.

Maintaining eye contact and smiling are the perfect way to let people know that you're listening to them.

Maintaining eye contact is an important thing, so try this without staring. Also smiling, not in a serious discussion though, occasionally conveys that you're listening to people in front of you. It seems like you're already trying it, so I'd say keep it up, but yes, it will let them know you're paying attention to what they are saying.

Try nodding a couple of times when they look at you while talking. It is not necessary to do it frequently. You can also say "mhmm".

Things to avoid, which convey that you're not listening

This article from Business Insider shares a few things that allows you to know that someone is not listening. So, you can try the following tips to counter them.

  1. Try not to smile too much and for too long. Smile naturally. If you're smiling while your mind is somewhere else, they will know.

  2. Try avoiding tapping your fingers and checking your phone. This also makes them feel that you're not listening.

  3. Also try not to look nervous, or moving in your seat, turning your back since it will convey that your attention is not focused.

  • 3
    I agree with all of this except for the first paragraph. If that's not a position you take naturally, it's likely to come off as fake and posed. When I try to picture what you've described, all I can see is someone overacting a cliched version of interest.
    – David K
    Feb 22, 2018 at 14:44
  • @DavidK Doing this naturally is the key here. I really don't know the term for this, but I am talking about something like this.
    – A J
    Feb 22, 2018 at 15:35

When being told something funny, I smile, when it's something disgusting/disturbing I'm sure my facial expression changes as well. But apparently, for a substantial number of people, I give the impression of zoning out when having long talks, even when I try to maintain eye contact without staring (which I was also told is a good thing).

Your non-verbal listening behaviour seem on point and should work for most people IMO.
That is, if you are actually doing what you say you do, and not only think you're doing it.

An article of skillsyouneed* lists 5 different non-verbal signs of active listening. The next time somebody talks to you you can see which things you do and which you don't:
*I'm not sure where this site has its information from, but to me the article makes sense.

  • Smile
    Small smiles can be used to show that the listener is paying attention to what is being said or as a way of agreeing or being happy about the messages being received. Combined with nods of the head, smiles can be powerful in affirming that messages are being listened to and understood.

    Smiling is very important and you say you do that. But more importantly here is the nod of the head. It gives the speaker the needed feedback that you are keeping up with what he says. Most people do this subconsiously but it can't hurt to actively nod more when listening. Similar to the nod is saying "mhmm" from time to time. It is used in the same situations as the nod, or even together.

  • Eye Contact
    It is normal and usually encouraging for the listener to look at the speaker. Eye contact can however be intimidating, especially for more shy speakers – gauge how much eye contact is appropriate for any given situation. Combine eye contact with smiles and other non-verbal messages to encourage the speaker.

    You say you try to maintain eye contact without staring. staring is quite relative here, in my opinion. When someone is listening to me and they are looking nonstop at me, I don't perceive it as staring.
    Shy people however might think it is staring. What will happen in that case is that the shy speaker will break eye contact instead of you.
    I think by actively trying to look more at the speaker than you would normally, you can increase your chance to not come across as 'zoning out'.

  • Posture
    Posture can tell a lot about the sender and receiver in interpersonal interactions. The attentive listener tends to lean slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting. Other signs of active listening may include a slight slant of the head or resting the head on one hand.

    While your posture may have some impact on how attentive you look, I'm not sure how important it actually is. IMO smiling, nooding and eye contact is way more important. If you are proficient in those, your posture should not matter that much.

  • Mirroring
    Automatic reflection/mirroring of any facial expressions used by the speaker can be a sign of attentive listening. These reflective expressions can help to show sympathy and empathy in more emotional situations. Attempting to consciously mimic facial expressions (i.e. not automatic reflection of expressions) can be a sign of inattention.

    Mirroring has its advantages but you need to practice it a bit, or you risk getting the opposite result than you are looking for. Mirroring has to be very subtle in order to work.
    Posture-Mirroring is also a tactic to appear more likeable to your vis-à-vis, I have used it before i.e. in job interviews.

  • Distraction
    The active listener will not be distracted and therefore will refrain from fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, doodling, playing with their hair or picking their fingernails.

    This is an obvious one. You did not mention explicitly that you are not being distracted while listening, but I assume you were undistracted. Otherwise you would probably know why you're not being seen as an attentive listener.

Together with the things to avoid from AJ's answer you have a good list of behaviors that you can be aware of the next time you listen to someone.

The difficulty in doing all these things while listening attentively is that it uses a lot of concentration to send the correct non-verbal signals all the time, so that you forget to actually listen to and understand the speaker sometimes.
With some practice you will improve the subconsious non-verbal signals that you send and therefore be showing more effectively that you are attentivelylistening to the speaker.


Don't be afraid to do small interruptions that don't completely shut the conversation, like mentioned in other comments with comments like "mmmm","aha","yeah".

The thing is there have been several experiments on how people perceive their interlocutor to be listening, one that wasn't actually listening but doing non verbal clues (noding, facial expression changing, etc) and another one listening but not expressing anything at all, and without interrupting the speaker(as you said you prefer to do since you don't wanna interrupt).

Guess who they felt listened better to the story... The person who wasn't really listening.

Moral of the story is you have a lot of power in your non-verbal clues. Use it! People will definitely know you are listening to them, or at least they will get that feeling.

Body mirroring,eye contact, body relaxation,your feet pointing at your interlocutor,all this things should make the other person feel like you're really paying attention and don't wanna leave the conversation.

I also recommend you make some interjections like the mentioned on the start of the comment, although they don't add nothing to the conversation itself, it creates rhythm on the conversation and it's more likely the other person feels like you want to be a part of it and continue listening.


Now wait just a damn minute here, folks.

Does that get your attention? I'm going to provide a much more radical interpretation of this entire thing.

You state: Anyways, as the conversation progresses, often people start talking more and for longer periods of time. I've always been told not to interrupt people[etc.]

Having read the entire post rather carefully, I get the impression that you actually getting bored.

When you have long talks with a person, that does not give them the right to go on and on and on and one and on without end. And make you sit there or stand there like a deaf-mute zombie, nodding your head politely. Because that is what will happen. Anyone who expects anyone else to sit at attention for many long minutes on end, is not engaging in a "talk". They are engaging in a "talk at you".

Having a talk with someone implies a back-and-forth, not just a forth, as is it were.

  • Perhaps you are not in need of non-verbal cues. **You seem to already know those and use them.
  • Perhaps you need to let your interlocutor know that you too can speak and cannot be expected to just listen without any response. What's the point of that anyway?
  • Perhaps you need good verbal cues, so you can respond to what is being said and say what you have to say too.

  • If a person wants a lecture or a diatribe (where you can sit for long time and may or may not become a zombie or fall asleep), go to a lecture. Lectures are a place to listen without interrupting and you needn't give off any verbal cues. I don't know where one goes for that, except to those people you'v been talking to....

What talk is worth sitting for a long time for and without being able to act like a human being, not being able to talk at all and just being sending out positive non-verbal cues? You might as well be a machine.

You will be the ultimate loser here, so to speak. Because even if you look interested, by this point, are you even interested? And aren't you already flying to the Caribbean in your head for a beach vacation?

Shiver my timbers. I think some of us here might have been misled by your post. Somehow, I don't think I was.

You have my permission to interrupt me anytime. Finally, you may have been taught not to interrupt: that's fine in the normal world. People are entitled to finish their thought(s), and so forth, but no one should talk at you non-stop while you excel at your verbal cues. That's OK for normal interaction but what you describe does not sound normal to me.

I think you've had it with that and don't yet know it. Also, I question these people who expect you to sit and listen in rapt attention. Who are they anyway? They don't sound like the kind of people I would put with for five seconds. What wisdom could they possibly be imparting?

It all sounds like verbal torture to me....Things have limits. Formats have limits. We all have limits and we need to let others know that.

I read between the lines of your post. I hope I did not overstep my boundaries.

Hey, maybe you just need a new job. :)

  • Welcome to IPS :) your points all seem fine and can fit well here in IPS. However, the radical and wait just a damn minute comments distract from the main point. OP has a goal and has asked the question in a way that frames it with non verbal communication being the problem. You are suggesting a better way to achieve it than suggested and that is perfectly valid, so long as you have justified why this alternative perspective is valid there is no need for all the extra comments
    – Jesse
    Feb 23, 2018 at 1:57
  • The tone was meant to be jokey, jocular. And my response came after all the others. I meant no harm by it. My solution is "radical" as it suggests, as I said, that the OP already knows how to give non-verbal clues and that that is not the real issue. My reading of the question was just different from others' readings. That's all....
    – user13148
    Feb 23, 2018 at 16:40
  • Your reading was different yes, it seems OP already knows how to give non-verbal clues yes. If you could just cut out all the stuff going on about how radical you are (it is utterly irrelevant) then this would be a good answer
    – Jesse
    Feb 24, 2018 at 0:13
  • I'm sorry but what is wrong with saying a radical interpretation of her description? There is not a lot of stuff about how "radical I am". Basically, I'm saying she's cool and whoever said those things to her are not. I don't understand why you seem to be coming after me now. It feels a little bit controlling....Does everything need to sound like spoon-fed pablum? If that is the case, perhaps this isn't a forum for me.
    – user13148
    Feb 24, 2018 at 1:59

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