by Achim Nowak

The Power of Attending Behaviors

June 30, 2024

I notice them at once. A woman and a man.

They sit catty-corner from me on a Thursday morning, in a cafe in Miami . The woman leans into the table, her left elbow resting on the table-top, a look of eager curiosity on her face as she listens to the man sitting across from her. The woman’s entire presence radiates a sense of supreme interest and delight in the conversation. The man is leaning forward, in turn, his face animated, his eyes alive as he speaks.

They’re not a romantic couple, of that I am sure. I don’t know their story, don’t know what these two are talking about. But their conversation has the aura of high engagement. My eyes settle back on the woman’s demeanor as she leans into the table. Perfect attending behavior, I think to myself.

It’s a term used in counselor training. “Attending behavior,” as defined by the American Psychological Association, “is any behavior engaged in by an individual while attentively listening and observing a speaker, for example, exhibiting an open, interested posture and maintaining eye contact. Helpful attending behaviors, along with active listening, are considered cornerstones of a therapist’s or counselor’s ability.”

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Mary Oliver

I haven’t thought of attending behavior in years. But there it is, right in front of me, staring me in the face: Perfect attending behavior.

Attending behavior prods the other person to speak. I love the allusions of the term.

  • We attend to the other person.
  • We attend to how we show up in a conversation.
  • We pay attention.

There’s a reason why counselors are trained in attending behavior. It is useful in most any context. Hyper-useful in a critical business conversation.

Attending behavior is often trivialized as body language. It is that, yes, and so much more. Here’s how it breaks down.

Lean in

The body, and with the body our entire energy, tilts toward the person. This motion toward the other, more than any other signal, connotes our desire to be involved in the conversation and receive what the other has to offer. Simple. Powerful. In case of doubt, lean in.

Send encouraging non-verbal signals

We’re talking about the classic, subtle head nod. When overdone we may come across as over-eager. Ditto when we use it too often – it may be viewed as a trick. Used occasionally and sincerely, it indicates our interest in the conversation that’s unfolding. And it, yes, encourages the other person to delve deeper into the topic of your conversation.

Add verbal encourages

As we listen to the other person speak, we insert the tiniest verbal prompts. Uhuh. Yes. Sure. Short verbal utterances that may indicate understanding, interest, or possible agreement. These quick utterances, just like our non-verbal prompts, encourage the speaker to proceed. They are a surefire way of deepening and extending any conversation.

Show genuine curiosity

Curiosity is the inside job of attending behavior. It infuses the previously mentioned behaviors with purpose and meaning. It permeates our entire presence. Without it, we are, indeed, reduced to body-language tricks. With it, we fuel rich relationships that invariably yield better outcomes. Dig in. Cultivate a curiosity mindset and align it with supportive social signals.

It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg question. Do we slip into attending behavior because we find ourselves in a stimulating conversation? Or does our attending behavior invoke the engaging conversation?

In ANY conversation that matters, lead with attending behavior.

  • Lead with it when a conversation promises to be interesting.
  • Lead with it when it doesn’t.

When we attend to the other person, we invoke a richer conversation, a more productive outcome, every single time.

It’s so simple, isn’t it? Go Nike on this. Just do it.

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