Listening has long been recognised as a key skill for effective communication and elite influence requires highly effective communication. The effects of the COVID pandemic and the huge increase in the number of interactions which we conduct remotely have changed the situations in which we listen. This HBR article from 2016 lists five levels of listening and here are some suggestions from us on how to adapt these for increased levels of remote working.
Level 1 – creating a space where difficult or emotional issues can be discussed.
When we are interacting remotely the ability to create a safe space changes. If either of us is working from home then a partner, house mate or child can walk into the conversation. Visibly showing the other person that you are ‘moving somewhere quiet’ can help make the other person feel secure. Asking them to ensure that you will not be disturbed during the conversation can also improve success.
Level 2 – removing distractions.
If you are having the conversation via a video call, let the other person know that you are closing browsers and other applications so that you can concentrate on the conversation. This both removes distractions and signals to the other person that you are really focused on what they are saying.
Level 3 – the person seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying.
Video calling can often lead to more stilted conversations than might take place face to face. We can miss the non-verbal cues that let us know when we should speak or to signal to the other person that we have something to add. Slight delays with video calls can exacerbate this. It often means that the other person will end up speaking for longer than they might do face to face and when we take our turn the same applies. This does, however, give us the opportunity when it is our turn to show that we have understood what they have said.
“Let me play that back to you” or “Can I just check that I’ve understood that?” allow us the opportunity both to demonstrate that we’ve understood what they’ve said but also to probe for areas where you might want to learn more.
For complicated issues, using a collaborative online whiteboard can also demonstrate good listening. Capturing key points on virtual sticky notes and making connections or building a collaborative mind map can also demonstrate that you fundamentally understand the other person.
Level 4 – the listener observes non-verbal cues.
Even with video calling this can be really challenging. Ensuring that you are well lit and that your hands are in view can increase the amount of non-verbal information you transmit during the conversation. If the other person is difficult to see or maybe does not have their video turned on then explaining that “I can understand what you are saying much better if I can see you well” can help stress the benefit to the other person of doing this.
Level 5: - the listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand.
This can be challenging to do remotely. Emotional connections can be difficult to make and it can be easier to misjudge the situation and come across as inauthentic. Using emotional labelling is one way to do this that still allows scope for having slightly misjudged it. “It sounds like you are really frustrated” or “I would be really angry in your shoes” shows that you are trying to empathise, adding “have I got that right?” gives space.
Level 6: - the listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light.
We may want to just clarify why someone thinks something, but particularly with reduced levels of non-verbal communication this may appear to the other person as an attack on their position. Statements such as “You know more about this than I do, it would be useful if you could give me the background as to why you know X is true” can remove this potential threat. If you’ve adopted the use of a collaborative whiteboard as a way of understanding the situation, then working together to add the factual basis for the points that have been raised can be a good way of highlighting to the other person where there might be gaps in their view or issues that they need to explore further.
Listening well is hard. Listening well remotely is even more difficult and can be time consuming. It’s not clear who first said “Do it right. Do it once” but with listening, investing the time in getting it right can reduce the number of times you have to come back to an issue and will strengthen your relationships.
Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.