In Any Conversation That Matters, Lead With Attending Behavior

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

They sit catti-corner from me last Thursday in the restaurant of the 25Hours Hotel in Duesseldorf where I visit friends. The woman leans into the table, her left elbow resting on the tabletop, 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 and psychologist training. 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, however, useful behavior in any context. Hyper-useful in a business conversation.

We trivialize it when we call it body language. It is that, yes, and so much more. It’s behavior that unequivocally offers attention and invokes it, in turn.

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. It works in-person. It works in Zoom. It works regardless of the culture you happen to be in. Leaning in, most literally and visibly, says I am “leaning into” this moment with you.

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. It is a physical and visual expression of this interest. And it encourages the other person to delve deeper into the topic of your conversation.

Add verbal encouragers

As we listen to the other person speak, we insert the tiniest verbal prompts.  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. The WHY. 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.

So simple, isn’t it? Make it a habit. Go Nike on this. Just do it.

Related: Why GRAVITAS Is Your Secret C-Suite Success Factor