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Active Listening Skills for the Remote Work Environment

4 Mins read

“Pay attention” is a fitting phrase because we truly do pay a fee when we listen. There are costs to listening, including our agenda, time, energy, patience, and concentration. It’s hard work! Of course, there are massive payoffs of listening as a way to convey understanding of and empathy for others.

The “F.E.E.” skills we “pay” to reap listening’s business and personal rewards are:

  • Focusing our environment, mind, and body on the other’s perspective.
  • Exploring with acknowledgments, open-ended questions, and encouragement.
  • Empathizing by validating and paraphrasing others’ thoughts and feelings.

These skills are essential when advising and guiding others who bring us their problems, gaining commitments, defusing defensive reactions to feedback, expressing our views and handling the reaction, disagreeing agreeably, and managing conflict. Active Listening skills can be learned through workshops, books, articles, blogs, and podcasts. But we need tips for applying this competency to virtual communication given our increasingly remote and hybrid work environment.

On the Telephone

Others can’t see your body language, but you should still use attentive Focusing skills. People will sense your forward lean, interested facial expressions, and other body language. This keeps you alert, since the body and mind are connected. Physically attending is so important even on the phone, many customer service cubicles are equipped with mirrors, so reps can pretend they are face-to-face and see how they appear. That said, especially emphasize vocal and verbal components of listening (voice tone, rate, pace, etc.). Use more acknowledgments (e.g., “I see . . .”, etc.) and encouragements (e.g., “Please go on . . .”) to show that you’re tracking. Paraphrase more than normal to prove you care and that you understand what someone is saying (e.g., “Let me see if I’m following you so far, since I want to understand what proposal changes you want . . .”). If you gently break in to show empathy and acceptance rather than reacting, others will appreciate your paraphrasing as a service to the conversation.

In Emails or Threaded Texts

You can’t see a writer’s body language or hear vocal tone but consider how they might be feeling given their content and emotion words. In your written reply, before writing something in response from your own frame of reference, first paraphrase your understanding of their message as a bridge to your response, reaction, or answer (e.g., “Joe, your email made it clear that you’re upset about not being kept in the loop about today’s meeting. Please let me explain how that happened . . .”). An option is to make sure you’re tracking in a preliminary email before responding in a second one. You can write a paraphrase and ask for confirmation that you’ve understood before following up with your next emailed or texted speaking turn. Some people find this process too cumbersome, while others find that occasionally such quick back-and-forth exchanges in writing are feasible and simulate a conversation.

In Video Conferencing Meetings

Change Your Listening Sub-skill Emphasis. On some virtual platforms with camera functions, audible Exploring skills interrupt the speaker, since the camera and audio shifts any time a voice is picked up. Therefore, reverse the above telephone tips by eliminating verbal acknowledgments (“I see . . . uh-huh . . .”) and encouragements (“Go on . . .”) and instead relying more on physical Focusing skills so that others can see you listening (e.g., looking into the camera’s eye, large and slow nods, facial empathy, thumbs up, etc.). Empathizing skills’ use of paraphrasing is still your best friend to show that you were truly tracking and understanding (“Wow, Tim, you sound really skeptical about the time-line for getting the product to market…”).

Paraphrase Liberally. Besides paraphrasing individuals, periodically summarize group agreements, disagreements, conclusions, decision status, and agreed upon next steps. Send private chat room paraphrases if you think a person doesn’t feel heard when the group moves on (e.g., “Hey, Colin. It seems like Carlita didn’t really get why you feel so strongly, and you seemed offended. Want to talk later?”).

Curb Multitasking. Increase involvement by inviting someone to paraphrase what you’re saying. So that people don’t think this is a “Gotcha,” preview that you’ll be doing so to maximize focus and energy: “I know it’s tough to limit multitasking with emails pinging us and texts popping up. I’d appreciate all of us turning off phone notifications and I’ll be calling on people to give reactions or to paraphrase me or others. It’s not to catch you off guard—just to keep us all focused. OK?”

Uncomfortable Experimentation

You’re not alone if this all sounds unnatural. Listening, particularly paraphrasing, goes against the grain—especially for managers. We’re paid to solve problems—quickly. That lures us into telling and advising, when we should be listening in order to fully comprehend what the heck we’re trying to fix or solve. And don’t worry…you’re not being a phony even though at first it might feel foreign to you. You’re not trying to be someone you’re not, no more than you are being a “fake” if you’re practicing a new tennis backhand method that feels unnatural. You’re not pretending to be Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams. You’re still you, just working on an unfamiliar stroke.

Rick Brandon is the author of Straight Talk: Influence Skills for Collaboration and Commitment. Rick Brandon, PhD is the founder and president of the internationally respected training firm, Brandon Partners, which delivers interpersonal and political influence skills to scores of Fortune 500 companies globally. His new book, Straight Talk: Influence Skills for Collaboration and Commitment, available on May 10, 2022, is his “workshop-in-a-book.” Dr. Brandon has personally taught hundreds of thousands to improve their results and work relationships through communication candor, clarity, empathy, and impact. He co-authored the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success (Free Press), which has been called “the pre-eminent book on organizational and political savvy.” Dr. Brandon earned a PhD in Counseling at the University of Arizona, an MA in School Psychology from St. Lawrence University, and a BA in Psychology from Case Western Reserve.

Active listening stock photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

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