Last spring, virtual collaboration went from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have” in a matter of weeks. It was a move many were reluctant to make but then excited to have — and now we’re burned out by the thought of it. As COVID made its mark on corporate communities in early 2020, the idea of changing the way we meet and interact seemed like a colossal shift. Then, it appeared we could accomplish much of what we did in person more conveniently at home or anywhere with an internet connection.

Now that we are closing in on almost a year of remote work, there is collective agreement that virtual meeting fatigue is real, and it’s taking a toll on our health and productivity. The new workplace has us well dressed from the waist up, sitting non-stop in front of our computer and clicking from meeting to meeting for most of our day. As we have learned, staring at screens with an audience of observers is mentally exhausting.

Initially, many thought that video meetings would be an adequate replacement for in-person gatherings. The hope was that the visual element of the video would make virtual interactions feel more like a face-to-face experience, with cameras enabling us to see each other’s expression, body language and level of attentiveness. However, we have learned that the video camera is a distraction, creating interference and even resulting in miscommunication, which hinders virtual collaboration. Fortunately, the secret to successful virtual collaboration isn’t technology. It’s listening.

Listening is not only the secret to human connection in virtual meetings; it’s also the gateway to productivity. If we are truly focused on listening by connecting with what is important and to whomever is speaking, our virtual meetings will be more fruitful. Unfortunately, they are increasingly an opportunity to multitask.

It has been proven that listening (or making sense of what we hear) happens in our brain, and our brain can only do one task at a time. This research suggests that what we call multitasking is actually switch-tasking. Most of us have become very good at switch-tasking — moving our focus back and forth, maybe checking our email and then returning our focus back to the meeting. This behavior is taxing on our brain, and doing it from one meeting to the next is exhausting.

Meetings are intended to be a shared experience to distribute knowledge and information, generate ideas, and make decisions. Bringing a team or group together to work through a problem or ideate is an investment. When a group initially comes together, participants bring their own opinions and ideas. By listening to one another, we’re exposed to new perspectives, which often influences and shapes their thinking. The blend of the group’s intellect strengthens the productivity of the meeting by leveraging the cognitive diversity of the attendees, making them smarter together than they are separately. Often, this blend creates ideas and solutions that no single attendee could have anticipated. The quality of listening in the meeting is often the precursor to the results.

To that end, here are five key listening tips you can use to have productive virtual meetings:

1. Prep Prior to the Meeting

Request that attendees do some work prior to the meeting. Assign each person an area to report on so that the time you spend together is used to listen to learn from each other and make decisions.

2. Ask All Attendees to Consider What They Will Be Listening for

We all listen habitually, yet each meeting we attend has a different topic and content. By prepping our listening needs ahead of time, we can stay attentive to others, listening for useful content.

3. Adjust Your Listening Focus

Learn to “zoom in” and “zoom out” in your listening in order to navigate the big picture while considering the details.

4. Don’t Let the Camera Be a Distraction

What we see influences our ability to listen. Don’t let yourself become distracted by other attendees’ expressions, body language or attentiveness. The video square is misleading. Since many of us don’t like to be on camera, we are less relaxed. Often, our body language is less about the content of the meeting and more about our discomfort with the camera.

5. Request That Attendees Listen to Learn

Remind participants to listen openly, letting go of their own biases. It is natural to have an opinion and an attitude toward information as you hear it. The alternative, listening to learn and seeking to understand, opens up new ideas and possibilities that are unhindered by our own preferences.

Rather than relying on video camera, set your trust in listening — a position that will surely produce more human, and more productive, virtual meetings.

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