During the COVID-19 pandemic many work environments were challenged to enable employees to work remotely from home. In 2021, Gallup reported that approximately 45% of employees worked form home either part-time or full-time. Now, after the pandemic, many companies have decided to let employees work from home to save money, increase flexibility, and increase productivity. Working remotely requires the ability to listen effectively in order to work well with others in virtual teams to produce quality results.
In remote work environments, communication takes place by email, phone, or videoconferencing software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Listening in remote environments is one of the most important skills because there is a lack of nonverbal communication cues that we often take for granted when we speak to others in person. To understand listening in virtual meetings, we need to be able to identify our listening style, the challenges in virtual environments, and strategies to become better virtual listeners.
A popular listening measure is The Listening Styles Profile – Revised (LSP-R) that includes four types of listening: relational, analytical, task-oriented, and critical. In virtual conversations, people may have different listening preferences. And, for this reason, it’s important to understand each other’s listening styles.
Relational listeners prefer to focus on the relationship during conversations. For instance, at a virtual meeting, a relational listener will pay attention to the feelings and emotions of the speaker, and will offer emotional support. Relational listeners enjoy listening in-depth to personal stories and strive to listen to maintain work relationships.
Analytical listeners are able to pay attention to facts prior to making preliminary judgments. In virtual meetings, analytical listeners are objective because they are able to consider different sides of an issue before providing their perspective.
Task listeners prefer speakers who get straight to the point of a message. They become impatient with people who go into tangents and ramble on and on. In a virtual meeting, if a speaker speaks more than 15 minutes without a break, task listeners may easily tune out and become discouraged in listening to the rest of the message.
Critical listeners will evaluate messages for logic, accuracy, and consistency. In a virtual meeting, critical listeners will be the first to catch errors or mistakes in the speaker’s arguments. Critical listeners will also notice any contradictions said during virtual conversations.
While a person might prefer a certain type of listening style, effective listeners are able to switch “listening hats” depending on the context. For instance, at a virtual social event, relational type of listening might be most effective. In an informative meeting, task-orienting listening may be the most effective. Find out what your listening style by completing the LSP-R scale. If you catch yourself only engaging in one type of listening, practice using other styles.
Challenges of Listening in Remote Work Environments
Regardless of listening type, listening in remote work environments is harder than listening to in-person meetings. First, virtual fatigue or engaging in too many screen-based activities can negatively affect the energy in virtual team meetings. When listeners are feeling fatigued they lack the energy that is required to engage in active listening, or the ability to be fully attentive to the speaker’s message.
Second, technological errors such as “screen freezes,” Wi-Fi disconnections, and having a slow Internet connection can also affect the listeners’ ability to effectively listen to a message. When this happens, it is very difficult to catch up with what was said unless one asks the speaker to repeat the message.
Third, in virtual environments it’s easy to engage in pseudolistening or pretending to be listening by just turning off one’s webcam and microphone. Another risk of virtual meetings is that one might want to multitask and do a variety of activities without having anyone in the “virtual room” notice. This disengagement can make it quite difficult to listen to the virtual speaker’s message.
Improving Listening in Remote Environments
While these are only some of the challenges, what might be some strategies to become better listeners? In It’s Interpersonal: An Introduction to Relational Communication, Mr. Bruce Punches and I provide several strategies to become better listeners by paraphrasing, metacommunicating, practicing with recall tests, and being empathic.
Paraphrasing is restating a speaker’s message using your own words. In virtual dyadic or small group meetings, you can paraphrase using your microphone or the chat feature.
- “Sounds like you are saying…”
- “What I hear you say is…”
- “If I understood correctly, you mean that…”
By paraphrasing it communicates that you want to understand the speaker’s message. In virtual settings, speakers often encounter the deadly silence, and when they see a virtual listener paraphrase, it provides them with feedback and encourages them to continue speaking.
Metacommunication means talking about what you communicate. In virtual conversations, metacommunication is useful when reflecting on the effectiveness of a message, ensuring that the conversation is occurring at a good time, and to ensure the listener is listening.
- “Was I clear about the example I gave? Do you need further clarification?”
- “Is this a good time to ask questions?”
- “Can you please repeat what I just said?”
Metacommunication is a technique that can help both the speaker and the listener ensure that communication is being taken place. If a message is misunderstood, the communication will be ineffective. In virtual environments, we need to practice metacommunication to ensure that our message is understood.
Practice with Recall Tests
In virtual meetings, it is essential to take good notes. You can use a notebook or a note-taking app using a tablet. To enhance your memory consider drawing pictures and using acronyms. Then, after the virtual meeting has concluded, practice testing yourself to ensure you understood the message (without using your notes). What can you remember? The more you practice using recall tests in each meeting, the better your memory will become.
- “What was the big takeaway from this meeting?”
- “Is there something that the speaker wanted me to do?”
- “What three things stood out to me from this meeting?”
Practicing with recall tests, especially in virtual environments, will make you a stronger virtual listener. Presenters will be greatly impressed if you initiate follow up telephone conversations or meetings related to the topics discussed.
Listening with Empathy
Empathic listening is being able to identify and express feelings. You do not need to agree with the speaker, but rather listen to the feelings. In virtual meetings, speakers often express their emotions through their facial expressions, vocal tone, and gestures using a webcam. If they screen share, they may use audio, slides, pictures, or videos, to evoke emotions on their listeners such as surprise, joy, sadness, and fear among many other emotions. Speakers also express their emotions through stories, personal examples, and emoticons (i.e., smiley faces). Listeners can improve their empathic listening skills by using empathic phrases.
- “If I understood correctly, you feel ____.”
- “I relate to what you shared, I would feel the same way.”
- “I really enjoyed your presentation and learning about ___! :-)”
Each of these listening techniques will help you become a better listener in virtual work environments. However, you must take the initiative to practice the techniques in your next virtual meeting or conversation. With sufficient practice, you will notice your virtual listening skills develop and improve overtime.
Dr. Leslie Ramos Salazar
Associate & Abdullat Professor of Business Communication & Decision Management