top of page

Mouths that Close and Ears that Don't

Winston Churchill shared, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” We know that courage is a key component in becoming an analytical thinker, but it is also a vital player in communication. The courage Churchill was referencing is the strength it takes to know that one does not have all of the answers and needs to listen to others’ ideas (think intellectual humility).  It also alludes to the ability to share new evidence, requiring courage if it should go against prevailing thought. Effective communication then refers to both receptive and expressive skills. Genevieve Northup in the Career Guide at identified four main communication types: Verbal, Nonverbal, Visual and Written. In this post we’ll look at these four types of exchanges as they pertain to receptive communication.


Verbal language is communication through the use of the spoken word. Active listening is the number one skill to develop in terms of receptive language. Robinson, Segal and Smith in their post share that this goes beyond simply hearing. Active listening shows an engagement with the speaker, noting not only the words spoken, but also the subtle changes in the person’s voice that signal any emotion behind the words. To become thoroughly engaged in the other person’s message, you must listen to understand, not to respond. This is often the most difficult part of becoming good at active listening. By listening to actually understand, you create an atmosphere conducive to making connections with speakers as they come to feel that you value their point of view.


Here are some tips to become a better active listener:

·       Stay focused. This is not the time to multi-task, so let the phone go to voicemail and the emails come in without notice. To stay in the moment, you may find that repeating the speaker’s words in your head can be helpful.

·       Hear the emotion in the speaker’s words. The tiniest muscles in the body can help with this. Higher frequencies convey emotion when speaking, and it’s your tiny muscles in the inner ear that pick up these sounds. You can get these muscles in tip-top shape through music. Both singing and the playing of certain woodwind instruments have been shown to build these inner ear muscles.  It’s also what you listen to that makes a difference. High frequency types of music, such as a Mozart symphony or a violin concerto will help. (Lower frequency genres of music such as rock, pop, or hip-hop do not have the same effect in building inner ear strength.)

·       Avoid interrupting. If you are actively listening, you should be concentrating on what the speaker is saying and not what you are going to say next. This is not the time to insert your opinions-there will be a time for your mouth to open later!

·       Clarify what is heard. If there is a point that needs more clarity, paraphrase what you believe has been said. To come across sincerely, go beyond simply repeating the points you heard verbatim and instead say, “Do you mean to say,” or “What I hear you saying is.”


Nonverbal language is another way to understand what is being said. Robinson, et. al., point out that we most often think of it as communicating through the use of body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. But gestures and body movements, eye contact, posture, and even muscle tension and breathing rate also give clues to the thinking going on behind the speaker’s words.


Read on to discover some ways they suggest to improve the way you interpret nonverbal language:

·       Consider nonverbal cues in totality. A person may cross their arms for a brief moment which usually signals adverse emotions. However, if the overall cues don’t support a negative attitude, then ignore that cue.

·       Not all nonverbal language means the same thing. Be careful to note individual differences when inferring intent from a speaker’s nonverbal messages. Age, culture, gender, and emotional state all can play a part into variances in nonverbal language. For instance, a person who just experienced a trauma, an American teen, and a Japanese business person may nonverbally express themselves differently.

·       Show interest in the speaker’s ideas. Make sure your posture is open and your body language is inviting (no crossed arms!) Nodding occasionally and a tilting of the head are some ways you can use your body language to show engagement with the speaker.


Visual communication involves the use of images and graphics to succinctly convey a message. The Indeed editorial staff listed types of visual communications as images, videos, graphs and other data visualizations, illustrations, animations, the use of icons, and even interactive elements. It is important that visual media is just as well-scrutinized as the verbal and nonverbal messages are.


Jackie Huddle, the Visual Literacy and Resources Librarian at Indiana University at Bloomington, shares some of the tips of her trade in properly interpreting visual resources.

·       Review and observe the entire visual before analyzing it. Read titles and labels in graphs, and understand the basic “Who/What/Where” of the images, graphics, illustrations and animations. Be sure to comprehend the content before moving on to evaluating it.

·       Read the metadata. Much can be gleaned from the information that accompanies the image. Many times descriptive sentences help you to understand the context of the information shared in the visual. It should also include a source, which is important to determine the age of the information as well as assist you in ascertaining any bias. If the source information is not included for graphs and other data visualizations, then you should consider it unreliable.

·       Evaluate the visual. Consider the source and any possible bias. Analyze the image to make sure it accurately represents the topic and is factually true. Does it convey the information it claims? Check data visualizations to make sure the relationship between the data and its representation are congruent. For instance, are the numbering of the axes given in an appropriate relationship to the data?


Written communication is the use of written language, symbols and numbers to convey a message. The editorial staff provides these examples of this type of communication: letters, reports, contracts and other business interactions, news releases, advertisements, emails, blogs and even text messages. Given the wide variety of these types of communication as well as their frequency in our everyday lives, it is vital that we become experts at interpreting information presented to us through writing.


In a post from History Skills, the following steps to improve your written communication interpretation skills were shared:

·       Read the source multiple times. The more complex the ideas being discussed, the more often you should read it. A legal contract will most likely need to be read and reread several times more than a text from a friend.

·       Identify the main idea. What is the most important point the author is trying to get across?

·       Highlight the key phrases. Do they support the main idea? Do you notice any missing information? Is the information factual and true?


Having the courage to “sit down and listen” requires the humility to accept you do not already have a corner on the knowledge market. This allows you to accurately gather new information from others as well as from a variety of sources. In addition, your mouth must close in order for you to be fully engaged in what the speaker is saying. Once you have heard what another has communicated, you can then begin to process it and see how it fits in to the information you have uncovered. Only with this newfound backdrop of knowledge will you be ready to "open your mouth" to express your ideas. The next post will share how you can most effectively express these ideas so they will be considered by others.  

(*Title excerpted from a quote from Paulo Cuelo.)

(**Image created by Julie Seymour using Media Magic by Canva's AI image generator. 1/18/2024) 


bottom of page