Nonverbal heckling as an art form

Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2002

A few years ago I leaned about active listening. It seemed at the time to be a very non-news kind of thing, just a repackaging of what we used to call paying attention. Oh no, a person conducting an active listening seminar would say, it's much more interactive than that and takes practice.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

The active listener gives nonverbal clues to the speaker that they are, indeed, listening. The active listener nods, maintains supportive eye contact, says mm-hmm now and then and waits until the speaker is finished to respond. Some questions related at least remotely to what was said are offered as a show that competent listening led the way toward a genuine quest for comprehension.

We all like to be actively listened to. Some of us celebrate passive listening. Having the listener remain in the room until we are finished is good. If someone were to maintain eye contact and then ask pertinent questions when we were finished, well, we'd feel very special. More commonly, people who actively listen to us are trying to find a convenient place to interrupt to tell us our clothing is on fire or because they need to say something far more important that what we are saying.

The dark side of active listening is what I call nonverbal heckling. Wait, let me capitalize that, and yes, I do have a reasonably priced presentation. We have all seen it in action in public meetings, classrooms and family gatherings. Mild silent heckling is frowning, lip pursing and subtle head shaking (not nodding) paired with arms folded across the chest. Nodding in this arena would be nodding off, a passive, yet very effective form of heckling.

Sidebar on passive heckling: Many children and older men are masters at this. Nodding off in a crowded room in a folding chair is recognized as performance art in some circles. Start with head drooping and jerking back up a few times, then drop off and be quiet for a few minutes. The character and volume of the snoring you develop are your own style, don't overdo it, but defying gravity to stay in your chair will keep the entire audience anxiously on the edge of theirs. Drooping a little now and then will add to the tension and no one will be paying any mind to the speaker. You steal the show, disempowering the presenter. Bravo.

Now back to the active method. To warm up your visual message to the speaker, do an exaggerated look to your neighbor with one eyebrow raised. Finish with a quick eye roll as you break eye contact with the neighbor. You are seriously questioning the speaker now and you are not alone. Do some shifting in your seat and if you're wearing a hat, slide it of and resettle it a little lower over your face, like you're in a strong wind and determined to keep going. Scowl. This sequence is comparable to a moose raising its hackles and laying its ears back.

To crank nonverbal heckling up a notch, put a horrified look on your face and hold your hands up and out. This posture says, what in the heck are you trying to pull here? (On the east coast - what are you, nuts?) Only a really tough speaker (or one without her glasses on) can withstand this abuse. To signify that you give up and can't listen another minute, throw your hands up while looking straight up, turn sideways, slump down in your chair with one arm over the back and the other stretched over your crossed knees. Look at the back of the room. It's OK and very effective while starting this move to snort or at least whoosh.

A good nonverbal heckler doesn't leave the room. If it's a standing room only meeting and you're standing, it's OK to stomp off a few paces doing the arms up thing, whoosh if you want, but you aren't letting the speaker off that easily - you always come back. It's good to reposition yourself each time to rally more of your fellow nonverbal hecklers.

Why go through all this, why not just get up quietly and leave if you aren't enjoying the speech? For the last few thousand years, culture and manners have required that we show tolerance or defend ourselves (or some bizarre combination) when someone is talking to us. On top of that, nowadays, it's because we all paid attention in the class on active listening.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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