Whether you're connecting with your colleagues over the phone or by video, being able to replicate the interpersonal connection of an in-person meeting is hard. We're often missing the clues and cues that each of us send (consciously or unconsciously) to demonstrate engagement, attention, agreement, disagreement, commitment, disinterest, and more.
However, we don't have to miss them. And we shouldn't. By being an attentive active listener in remote meetings, you can not only "read the room" (virtually speaking, of course), but you can also create an environment where your colleagues feel heard, understood, valued, and like they want to contribute to the conversation.
Here are five ways to be a better listener in remote meetings:
1. You listen for what's being said and for what isn't being said.
It's easy to take what your colleagues say at face value. However, when communicating over video, pay attention to more than the words you're hearing--especially if the words don't match your colleague's tone of voice or body language onscreen.
If your colleague says, "I'm totally on board," but his statement sounds more like a question, check in about that. If your colleague says, "We're all doing OK at home," and her face looks concerned, check in about that, too. The goal isn't to disprove what they're saying; it's to show that you're paying attention to the whole person--and that you care about that person, too.
2. You don't relate everything you hear back to yourself.
Each of us wants to be heard, valued, and appreciated for our own unique experience. While sharing a common challenge with a colleague can create a sense of rapport and connection, it also can make it far too easy to make the conversation all about you.
When your teammate shares, "I had the hardest time getting the kids to go to bed last night," rather than say, "Me, too!" try saying, "That sounds exhausting! How did you finally get them to sleep?"
3. You paraphrase what you're hearing to check for understanding.
Won't it slow the meeting down to stop and say, "Let me just make sure I am hearing you correctly ... " and reiterating what you've heard your colleague say? According to research, the answer is no. When you check for understanding, participants are more likely to recollect the content with greater clarity, get to the core issues more quickly, and avoid long recaps.
Checking for understanding will also help your colleagues feel heard and understood, increase the likelihood that people are clearly aligned with next steps, and reduce the probability that you'll end up doing more work in the long run because of confusion and misunderstandings.
4. You get comfortable with silence.
For many of us, sitting in silence in a conversation is excruciating. Why? Because, according to doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker Dr. Danielle Forshee, the quiet can indicate a lack of structure or direction. These unstructured silences can make us compelled to fill the quiet with humor, irrelevant comments, or other topics to break up the discomfort.
Nevertheless, good listeners offer silence for people to connect with their own thoughts and feelings, self-reflect, and process information at their own speed. You might say, "I'm going to ask for each of us to think silently about the topic for the next two minutes before we share our perspectives. I'll keep time on my end."
Good listeners also don't panic when it's quiet, assuming that something is wrong. You might try acknowledging an extended silence, and being curious, such as "I'm noticing that it's quiet. Would you share what's going on for you?" And then welcome all answers-- including those that disagree with your perspective.
5. You are inclusive in who you listen to.
Unconscious bias--the judgments and behaviors toward others that we're not aware of-- shows up everywhere in our lives. Listening is no exception. When meeting with your colleagues, be intentional in actively including and listening to a variety of people. Think about engaging people with a range of roles and experiences, up and down the hierarchy, and across genders and race.
In addition, be mindful of your similarity bias (listening more to people who have more in common with you than to those who are different); as well as your "closeness-communication" bias, where we're less likely to listen to people to whom we feel close because we think we can predict what they're going to say.
Remote meetings can be an opportunity to just check out, or to really check in on the work and the people behind the work. The choice is yours to make.