Body Language 25 Ears and Hearing

April 27, 2019

Interpreting the body language associated with ears is challenging activity. For the most part, ears are receivers of information rather than providers. Ears rarely move; they are just stuck on the side of the head to enable listening. However, if you know how to observe them, ears can send some strong signals about what is going on with a person.

You can wiggle your ears by contracting the muscles on the back of your head. Other than that, ears do not move much. One exception was my father, who could actually wiggle his ears without moving his facial muscles. I could never figure out how he did that.

If you observe someone who is wiggling his ears while listening or speaking, he may have an uncontrollable tick or other nervous disorder. How else, other than movement, might we gain insight from observing the ears? The answer is color.

Normally the ears are the same color as the cheeks, but there are several situations that can cause the ears to blush or become red. Let’s examine some of these conditions.


When a person becomes enraged, the blood naturally flows to the ears and they will become much redder than the surrounding body parts. Of course, to read this type of body language, one must be able to see the tops of the ears. Women or men with hair covering up the tips of their ears have the ability to hide this condition under most circumstances.


The ears become reddened when a person is aroused. Anything from a mild desire to raw passion will affect the color of the ears. I have not seen a study to indicate that the exact shade of the ear correlates with the level of passion. I would be interested in knowing this if anyone knows of such a study.


The ears may also become red if a person is feeling embarrassed. However, usually when this occurs, the rest of the face will turn red as well.


Extreme stress can also cause the ears to become red for some people.


Just as very cold temperatures can cause the ears to appear slightly blue, very hot conditions or intense exercise can create red ears. In this case you would know the reason because the face would be red and the forehead would be showing perspiration. Other conditions causing ears to become red rarely cause the sweat glands to secrete as well.

Sound Modulation

When a person cups his hand behind his ear, it is a call for more volume. Likewise, hands over the ears means too much volume, or it might be an indication the person is just not wanting to hear what is being said.

When communicating with another person audibly, make sure your volume is adequate for the other person to really hear the input. It is best to be in the same room with a person you want to communicate with, because that allows the other person the ability to view your entire body language and even read your lips as you speak.

The relation of complete hearing to trust is simple.  With incomplete information, people will make assumptions (sometimes incorrect) about your meaning.  They may believe that accurate communication has happened when it has not.

If a person has a hearing condition, such as tinnitus (ringing or hum in the ears), you need to take that into account to provide enough volume for the person to really hear you. Sometimes hearing loss is so subtle that the person is unaware of a problem. The antidote for this is to get a periodic hearing test.

Make sure there is not another source of sound closer to the listener than you. For example, if I am standing next to a molding machine you need to raise your voice or I am not going to hear your input. This situation is intuitively obvious, but it is often a source of poor communication at work and in the home.

If you have a particular person who often does not receive the full message, he or she may have a hearing condition or you may be communicating in a way that does not allow the person to hear you accurately. It could be that audio input is not the preferred channel of communication for the person. Check it out and modify your speaking pattern accordingly.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.TheTrust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Listening and Hearing vs Understanding

November 10, 2012

We have all experienced the phenomenon where we have tried to explain something to an individual who appears to be paying full attention. The individual was alert and nodded many times giving the impression of understanding. Later on we found that the individual internalized almost none of the information we were trying to convey. This article explains why this happens and offers some antidotes.

To internalize a message, one must not only pay attention, but the information must sink into the brain enough for recall and action. Listening can be happening even though there is little comprehension. A typical example of this occurs when dealing with two people who have different primary languages.

I noticed this phenomenon often when working with technical people in Asia. They were able to understand English, so we used that for communication. They would nod and give verbal cues (like “uh huh”) when I talked, but later would not be able to recall the meaning. They were being polite and did not want to upset me, so they took in what they were able to without internalizing the message.

Here is a gag from the famous erstwhile Goon Show on BBC. The dialog that illustrates the problem is between Minnie and Henry, an old feeble couple:

Henry: Minnie, Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.
Minnie: What’s that Henry? I can’t understand you.
Henry: Oh geesh. I said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.” Now, Minnie, did you understand me that time.
Minnie: Yes! You said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.”
Henry: Very good! Well then, why don’t you do it?
Minnie: What does it mean, Henry?

There are many methods to help determine if a person has internalized a message, but each one has the potential to deceive or annoy either party. Here are six ways to do it along with the caveats for each method:

1. Repeat the information – Describe the same information paraphrasing yourself so the listener hears the instruction twice but with a different style. If the instruction involves an action, then a demonstration may help. If there is an abstract concept, then using the VAK model will help. This is where you frame the information in a way consistent with the listener’s primary channel of taking in information (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). This repetition style can feel pretty cumbersome to the speaker and the listener, but having a real verification is the most secure way of determining if the person listened, heard, and understood the instructions.

2. Look for body language – If someone has good eye contact and following skills (like grunting, nodding, or saying “uh-huh”) you have a good indication the person is paying attention. If the person is texting or otherwise gazing off into space with a blank look, you should assume little information is being internalized until you confirm otherwise. But paying attention does not guarantee understanding, so you can be fooled.

3. Ask a question – This method assumes the person has heard and internalized the content. By asking a simple question, you can get more information about the level of communication going on, but it is also not sufficient because of the phenomenon described above with Minnie. The person may be able to recite the words, but not really understand their true meaning.

4. Parrot the information – Have the other person repeat back the essence of your message. Here you are requesting the person do “reflective listening.” This is an excellent way to test the level of understanding, but it can be annoying, especially if you have a lot of information to convey. One antidote in the case of instruction is to get the person to actually do the task.

5. Ask for a demonstration – if the information is an actionable instruction, like how to adjust a carburetor, then you can ask the individual to show you the process you just described.

6. Observe the person over time – To get a true reading of the level of understanding, the best method is to monitor what the person does for several repetitions after the information was shared. The caveat here is that if the person does not do the activity right, it could be a motivation problem rather than a failure to understand.

7. Write it down – Having a written set of instructions or a check list is an obvious way to enhance the information transfer process. Multiple exposures to the same information using different modes will make the information stick better, and a written document can be referred to anytime in the future if memories start to fade.

When addressing a group, you will have different levels of understanding all around the room. One person may grasp 95% of your meaning while another may understand only 5% of what you intended to convey. The distraction factor will be different from person to person. One individual may appear to be listening, but he is daydreaming about something completely separate from your conversation. On the flip side, a person may be making little eye contact and multitasking, like texting a friend, but actually be listening carefully to your information. How do you know who got the message and who did not?

There is no 100% sure way to confirm people got the message unless you want to devise some kind of written or online verification test. For extremely important instructions, like some kind of emergency or medical procedure, it would be wise to go the formal route. For unimportant topics, like which pizza box has the pepperoni, the need to confirm the message was understood is less important.

Good communication involves work. It is not wise to just expect people to internalize some instructions fully based on just one verbal description. It is imperative to have a verification process in place that will ensure full understanding. The extra time and effort are well worth it because there will be far fewer disappointments.