Remote Leadership: How to Practice the Art of Active Listening
New Article by Delia Lloyd, Writing, Presentation and Media coach
As we collectively settle into a long stretch of working from home, we’re quickly adjusting to a host of new challenges. Seemingly overnight, we’ve all become experts in using “gallery view” on Zoom. We’re gradually working out which headsets will best enable us to drown out the sound of barking dogs and screaming children. We’re even figuring out what counts as an acceptable Online dress code, somewhere between pyjamas and suit.
One challenge that’s harder to surmount virtually, however, is the art of people skills. As a team leader, it’s not enough to establish a common set of objectives and an accountability structure. You also need to connect personally with the people who report to you if you’re going to persuade them to embrace your goals.
That’s a lot harder to do when there’s a computer monitor between you and your team. But it’s not impossible.
One useful strategy in these circumstances is to practice what’s known as active listening. ‘Active listening‘ means, as its name suggests, actively listening. It requires concentrating intently on what is being said, rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. This means listening with all senses – so that you can read the subtext of what the speaker is saying and try to understand him or her.
You might, for example, pay attention to body language. Are your team leaning forward in their chairs, ready to pounce, when they ask a question? This can suggest an aggressive subtext. Or are they leaning back in a relaxed posture, which might imply a more supportive, or at least neutral, question?
You should also pay attention to where they place their emphasis in a sentence. The phrase, ‘Did you do this?’ is utterly distinct in meaning from ‘Did you do this?,’ as well as ‘Did you do this?’ Try to read these subtle, verbal cues.
Another reason active listening is vital – particularly in an online environment – is that it shows that you’re actually paying attention to what’s being said. You can convey interest by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, or saying ‘Yes’ or simply, ‘Mmm hmm,’ to encourage them to continue.
You can also provide a mini-summary of what’s been said, followed by a confirmatory question: “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying a/b/c…is that right?” As the conversation unfolds, try asking open questions – ones that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” – to uncover the meta-narrative.
By providing this feedback, the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly. And as a manager, you’ll be much better positioned to address your team’s needs and interests.
So, work at being fully present. It’s one of the most powerful tools afforded you in the virtual age.