Why listening skills should be prioritised after pandemic

Listening to work colleagues can be hard work at the best of times. With the rise of hybrid working, is it time for our listening skills to go into empathic overdrive?

Listening is pretty hard work on the best of days when you have a real person sitting in front of you. We may not like to own up to it, but too many of us are simply waiting for the other person to finish, or not even that, before we come back with a return volley of our own ideas or opinions.

During the Covid-19 crisis, listening is even harder work. On video calls, we find ourselves drifting off, closing down emotionally and physically, pressing the mute button and even shutting off the camera too. When plaintive tones come down the line of ‘where have they gone?’, we plaster the smile back on the face and go again, cranking up the intellectual volume to try and work out where the discussion went in our absence.

Pay more attention

The point about the pandemic is that listening matters now more than ever. As the experts keep telling us, hybrid working is here to stay – along with the coldness of technological communication. More remote working requires us to pay more careful and inclusive attention to what others are saying.

According to communication expert Tim Levine, distinguished professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recent changes have impacted our skills. ‘The most obvious changes are that most of us now have less face-to-face, in-person interaction with others, and when we are face to face, we are wearing masks,’ he explains. ‘We have less interaction overall with people outside of the people we live with, and we spend more time on Zoom, Skype and other mediated platforms.’

‘The less contact we have with other people, the more suspicious we become…’

Social distancing might address immediate health concerns, but social isolation is not healthy in the long term. ‘There is some interesting and important research on the effects of social isolation on communication,’ says Levine. ‘One impact is that, the less contact we have with other people, the more we become suspicious of other people. This can make others more defensive and lead to a vicious spiral where isolation leads to suspicion, which begets defensiveness, which reinforces the suspicion and leads to further isolation as a self-fulfilling prophesy.’

Sharpen up your skills

If the pandemic is making us jumpy and suspicious, it will also affect our interpersonal skills. We just haven’t been putting those skills to good use of late. With listening being that much more of a slog and body language becoming more difficult to fathom, our ability to read the nuances of communication is affected.

So how can we sharpen up our listening skills?  For a skilled practitioner, it is possible to add warmth, inclusion and even good old-fashioned charm to the virtual world – but it needs that extra bit of awareness. What tips are out there to improve our all-round ability to connect? If we want to make future sales, win a new job, interview a new candidate, ward off complaints or even listen to a complaint, we have to make some changes.

Beat the odds

We are all well aware of the technological odds that are stacked against us, the delay, the feedback, lack of clear visual cues, distractions, the heavy workload for those we’re talking to, electrical outage and poor wi-fi to name but a few. So let’s take a look at what can be done to things easier.

An active sport: Firstly, it is not enough in any situation, whether face to face or virtually, just to listen to hear. Listening is not a passive sport but a seriously active occupation. We are not just listening to the words – we need to understand and empathise with the other person. We are building a connection through trust and appreciation of the others person’s needs and agenda.

The right background: Let’s start with a little scene setting. Let your video background say something about you; however, avoid telling too much of a personal story. What you are aiming at is giving yourself some humanity, but not giving the viewer a deep dive into your graduation photos, family pictures, or book collection. You don’t want the viewer to be so preoccupied with scrutinising your personal life that they are distracted away from what you may be trying to say.

Avoid distractions: Next, turn everything off that bleeps, peeps, and can notify you, so you can concentrate. Lock the door and shut out the cat and, if possible, get someone else to answer the door to the delivery person. You are on this call to listen.

Get comfortable: To concentrate and listen we need to be comfortable. Sit in an upright position so you can breathe properly, wear smart but comfortable clothes, scent the room if you need to and make sure the room is at the right temperature.

Tune in: Look at the camera, not yourself, and try to maintain eye contact with the person speaking. Lean in when they are talking to demonstrate with your body language that you are tuned in. There is nothing worse than thinking you are talking into a vacuum. When listening, add appropriate discourse markers, such as ‘uhum’ or ‘I see’,  to let them know you are still out there and following the conversation.

Jot down questions: As for questions ,why not write down a thought that goes through your mind quickly on a jotter. This is a great way of not forgetting what you want to ask and anchoring down that pertinent question you wish to follow up with.

‘Make sure your face is well lit and the top half of your body is visible…’

Remember to smile: Make sure your face is well lit and the top half of your body is visible, and remember to smile which helps warm up your face, giving  a cold medium some warmth. The funny thing with technology is that it almost leaves us socially and vocally naked. Take this last sentence. Utterances like this, which we could make in a face-to-face meeting as part of the cut and thrust of debate, can land with a heavy clunk via Zoom, when a whole bunch of people take in each syllable.

Use language sparingly: So, choose your words sparingly, make your language clear, concise and to the point. Make every word count and…don’t forget to pause. After the other person has spoken, paraphrase what you have heard so they can correct any misunderstanding and don’t forget to summarise action points.

And, finally, end your own contribution with a smile and a cheery ‘thank you for listening’.

Thank you for listening.

Wendy Smith is the founder and director of Coralstone Training, which specialises in working with people on soft skills for the workplace. She is also the author of The A to Z of Effective Communication
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