Remote Working: How to Listen Effectively
Updated: Apr 15
Why should you want to listen effectively?
The skill of listening, ensuring the messages you receive match the intentions of the sender and the sender knowing you have received them, is arguably one of the most powerful and most difficult skills to master. When you really listen to others, you connect with them and engage in rapport which is one of the most effective communication strategies. Studies show that effective listening produces three main results:
understanding or knowledge gain
relationship building / connection
a change in our feelings and attitudes
So being a good listener helps you be a better: friend, colleague, partner, helps you make better decisions and be both more effective and productive. When you are working remotely the skill of being a good listener doesn’t change but you may have to apply the skills in different ways.
‘How to’ tips
The following list describes some of the most important aspects to be considered when listening to others and how you may need to think about them differently in a remote setting.
Want to Listen: Almost all problems in listening can be overcome by having the right attitude. Remember, there is no such thing as disinteresting people – only disinterested listeners. If you are caught at a bad time by a request for a chat, sensitively ask if you can delay it to later on that day so you can be in the right frame of mind to listen. You also need to be able to listen to those whose personality you may not like, react to what is being said not the person.
Act Like a Good Listener: Be alert, sit straight, lean forward if appropriate; let your face radiate interest. If you can only have an audio conversation still try to practice these as it will help you to remain focused.
Leave your Emotions Behind: (where ever you can): Try to manage your worries, your fears, and your problems as they may prevent you from listening well.
Get Rid if Distractions: Put down any papers, pencils, etc. you have in your hands, they may distract your attention. This can be harder if you are on an audio call as the temptation is to multi task, don’t, try and put as many distractions as you can out of your reach until your call is over and don’t respond to email, messages etc on the media you are using for the call.
Listen to Understand: Do not just listen for the sake of listening; listen to gain a real understanding of what is being said and how it is being said, if you don’t understand, ask for clarification. Concentrate on what the other person is saying: actively focus your attention on the words, the ideas and the feelings related to the subject. If you know the speaker doesn’t like speaking face to face when you are physically together bear this in mind when you are remote too, what medium will they feel most comfortable with in communicating with you?
Use the difference in rate: You can listen faster than anyone can talk, with most of us thinking about four times as fast as the average person speaks. Avoid the trap of “On-Off Listening”, don’t get distracted by thinking of your own personal affairs, concerns, or interests, use this time to your advantage by trying to stay on the right track and think back over what the speaker has said.
Don’t Argue Mentally: When you are trying to understand the other person, try not to argue mentally while you are listening, this sets up a barrier between you and the speaker.
Get the Main Points (the big story): Concentrate on the main ideas and not the illustrative material; examples, stories, statistics, etc. are important, but usually not the main points. Examine them only to see if they prove, support or define the main ideas.
Look at the Other Person: When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message. They will use their mouth, eyes, hands & body to communicate with you. If you can’t see each other try to tune into the tone of their voice & their pace of speech.
Stop Talking: You can’t listen when you are talking. Communicate; do not take turns talking. We know silences are ok and allow thinking time for both parties but also remember when remote you may need short silences to ensure the other person has finished speaking before you start, especially if connection creates lags.
Empathise with the Other Person: To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be them at that moment. This is not easy, it takes energy and concentration, but it is an effective way of facilitating communication.
Ask Questions: Use questioning when you don’t understand, when you need further clarification or when you want to show you are listening; but don’t ask questions that will embarrass or “put down” the other person.
Don’t Antagonise the Speaker: You may cause the other person to conceal ideas, emotions, attitudes, by being antagonising in any of a number of ways: arguing, criticising, taking notes, not taking notes, asking questions, not asking questions, etc. Try to judge and be aware of the effect you are having on the other person. Adapt to the speaker. It is usually trickier to read this remotely if you haven’t had physical conversations with the speaker before but as above tune into the tone and pace of speech as well as the words.
Avoid Hasty Judgements: Wait until all the facts are in before making any judgements.
Some barriers to be aware of
An awareness of the “pitfalls” below is the first step to avoiding them.
“Open ears – closed mind” Listening - Sometimes we decide rather quickly that either the subject or the speaker is boring and what is said makes no sense. Often, we jump to conclusions that we can predict what they know or what they will say: thus, we conclude, there is no reason to listen because we will hear nothing new if we do.
“Too-deep-for-me” Listening - When we are listening to ideas that are too complex and complicated there is a danger we will “shut off”. If this is the case and you are speaking remotely ask if you can be sent some reading first to try and get your head around what is being said, depending on the way you like to receive information that might be the overarching vision or lots of detailed specifics.
“Matter-over-mind” Listening - We do not like to have our ideas, prejudices, and points of view overturned. We do not like to have our opinions and judgements challenged. Consequently, when a speaker says something that clashes with what we think, believe, and hold firm to, then we may unconsciously stop listening or even become defensive and plan a counter-attack.
Being “subject-centred” instead of “speaker-centred” - Sometimes we concentrate on the problem and not the person. Detail and fact about an incident become more important than what people are saying about themselves.
“Pencil” Listening - Trying to put down on paper everything the speaker says usually means we are bound to lose some of it because the speaker’s words come out faster than we can write them down.