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Working Remotely: The Importance of Active Listening

As we collectively settle in to a long stretch of working from home, we’re quickly adjusting to a host of new challenges. Seemingly overnight,...

EarAs we collectively settle in to 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 pajamas and suit.

One challenge that’s harder to surmount virtually, however, is the art of people skills. If you’re in a sales role,  it’s absolutely vital that you pick up signals about when to pull and when to push the client along the sales journey towards “yes.” This is especially important if you’ve never met that person before. Equally, whether you’re leading a team or managing up, you need to establish some sort of personal connection if you’re going to persuade the person in front of you to move towards your desired goal.

There’s no question that it’s harder to do all three of these things when there’s a computer monitor between you and your interlocutor. But that doesn’t mean it’s 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.

You might, for example, pay attention their body language. Are they leaning forward in their chair, ready to pounce, when they ask a question? This can suggest an aggressive sub-text. Or are they chilled out, relaxing back into their chairs, which might imply a more supportive, or at least neutral, question? How about their tone? Is there a decided hint of hostility in what they say? Are they trying to be helpful? Or are they simply curious?

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 are actually paying attention to what’s being said. Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, or saying “Yes” or simply, “Mmm hmm,” to encourage them to continue.  By providing this feedback, the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.

The last thing in the world you wish to convey in a business meeting is that you are thinking about something else. So don’t. This skill is particularly vital in an online meeting where you may be tempted to sneak in a quick peak at your email or your social media account. Nine times out of ten, if you pull your attention away from the speaker, you’ll fail to hear the question properly and – consequently – subtly convey that someone or something else is more important that what’s happening in front of you. Think about the message this sends when someone does it to you.

Above all, when you listen carefully to what someone’s saying, you’re much better positioned to address their needs and interests. And at the end of the day, that’s what effective sales – and management – is all about.

So work at being fully present. It’s one of the most powerful tools afforded you in the virtual age.

Image: Ear by Hana Ticha via Flickr





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