Real Listening in a Virtual World

While a lot has changed in the past year, one thing remains the same: hiring! Interviews, meetings, training, and onboarding continue, even if much of the practice has moved online.

As Zoom conferences have become more common than in-person coffee chats, we’ve learned that yes, Zoom fatigue is real. It drains us in ways that physical meetings simply don’t, all the while making it more likely that we’ll end up zoning out anyway!

Many of our clients at Bristol Associates are deeply skilled in tourism, hospitality and other industries that are built on the magic of human connection. They’re exceptional listeners and I’ve learned a lot from them! If there was ever a time to take these real-world skills to the screen, this is it — check out the tips below.

First, put on your thinking cap. It’s tempting to hop into a video call with mere minutes to spare — after all, there’s no commute necessary unless you count the trip to your fridge for a snack!

Just as our front-of-house experts put their best foot forward for customers, a little thoughtful planning ahead of a meeting goes a long way. It will make you a better listener, not to mention a more valuable contributor, to your call.

Things to think about:

  • Your role in the meeting ahead, and how you can best contribute. Are you sharing or absorbing information? Are you an expert, or should you be ready to learn?
  • Think about new ways to approach the problem you need to solve. Have an idea or two ready.
  • Most importantly, think about effective ways to get your message or idea out there. Consider the others in the meeting, their expectations, and the dynamic you should expect.

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Focus on one, maybe two things. Is there a more beautiful idea than that of a SHORT meeting? Take this lesson from lean manufacturers and plan to meet often, regularly, and for brief, focused amounts of time.

While it sounds like a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem, forcing focus on a single goal or topic helps to eliminate noise. In this kind of space, you can listen carefully with an eye to taking action on just one goal, which makes it infinitely easier to turn ideas into momentum. That’s what experts call measurable progress, and it happens one step at a time.

Mind the meaning. Leadership in our new normal relies on emotional intelligence more than ever, and skillful listening is a critical part of the toolkit. As leadership expert Fiona Robertson notes, it’s essential to “listen for meaning and the implications of what’s being said, not just for the facts.”

Communications professor Sarah Gershman calls this concept “connecting the dots,” and adds that it’s a critical part to keeping virtual conversations running smoothly. Listen for the larger dynamics of a conversation; these are the themes that draw scattered ideas into a singular direction. Sometimes, your greatest contribution as a listener isn’t in distilling new information at all, but in sorting out the meaning behind what’s already been said.

Raise your hand. Whether you’re asking questions, making skillful suggestions, or supporting the speaker, good listening relies on action. Because of the lack of non-verbal cues in a virtual setting, these actions become even more important — a clever inquiry reassures a speaker that you’re really paying attention.

The best listening truly feels cooperative, even when it’s on screen. Consider the ways to amplify, energize, and clarify a speaker’s ideas. As this study in the Harvard Business Review found, it’s all about being active. Work like a trampoline, not a safety net: Let others bounce ideas off of you, and give them a boost along the way!

Ben Farber

Ben Farber
Ben Farber is president of Bristol Associates.

Ben Farber

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