Online meetings are half-conference call, half-in-person meeting — and all the rage. The necessary explosion of online meetings has changed how we communicate for better and worse. Our increased ability to connect “face to face” with anyone, anywhere, has created a number of previously unavailable opportunities. Unfortunately, the modality and frequency of video calls has also created a series of previously unexperienced challenges.
An argument can be made that listening skills are currently valuable (and potentially less used) than ever before. However, the online meetings we increasingly rely on make listening more difficult. Think about it: How closely would you be listening if you were asked to spend five hours each day staring at yourself in the mirror, while dozens of people stared back at you from two feet away, there were distracting activities going on all around you, no one was sure when to speak or who was speaking next, and conversations were taking place completely outside their normal context?
The asynchronous element of online meetings throw our brain into overdrive as it tries to determine where we are in relation to our audience, where to focus our attention, what actions to anticipate, how and when to respond, how to feel, and what everyone else in the meeting is feeling and doing. It can be difficult to listen to our audience, accurately interpret the totality of their messages and respond appropriately when our cognitive faculties are pulled in so many simultaneous directions. Leaders who develop the availability to create clarity within the chaos will experience more success and feel less stress.
Below are five techniques that can help you listen better during online meetings, based on techniques certified forensic interviewers rely on to improve their focus during stressful interactions:
1. Remove Distractions
We can’t observe what we don’t see or hear. You have enough information on your computer screen to sift through without the added challenge of filtering what is going on around you. Whenever possible, avoid positioning yourself where you can easily look out windows, at a television or into other rooms where your attention can be diverted. Also, turn off your email notifications, keep your cell phone out of arm’s reach, and resist the temptation to surf the internet or multitask.
It’s equally important to tune out noises that aren’t directly involved with the messages you are receiving in the meeting. If the dog barks and then you hear the UPS truck in your driveway, you’ve solved that mystery. Move on. If a co-worker’s child is calling for his mother, let it go; it doesn’t impact the message you’re focusing on. If a co-worker isn’t muted, don’t waste your energy on anger; remember that everyone is distracted.
2. Elevate Your Expectations
We carry expectations of value into every interaction. These expectations may be positive, neutral or negative, and they impact how much attention, energy and motivation we carry into every meeting. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to confirm these expectations as quickly as possible and continue to reinforce our beliefs for the duration of our conversations.
You’ll almost certainly tune out at the first available opportunity. You may misinterpret the communications you do observe when you log into a meeting expecting it to be a waste of time, a co-worker to become a distraction or to learn nothing new. Leaders who elevate their expectations and look for opportunities to be surprised, add unexpected value or learn something about their co-workers are more likely to make critical observations their counterparts miss.
3. Stay Engaged
People typically participate in online meetings by actively speaking and passively listening, and online meetings with large groups have the power to inadvertently decrease each participant’s motivation to do either. When individuals can’t confirm the participation levels of the majority of the group, individuals become less motivated to participate. The bystander effect can set in, and participants may feel that the meeting isn’t important enough to participate in, because most of the other attendees aren’t participating. The Ringelmann effect can also set in when participants feel less responsible for the success of the meeting because they assume the rest of the group will take responsibility.
The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to engage yourself at the beginning of the meeting and remain engaged throughout. Alternatives include taking notes, challenging yourself to pick up nuances of the conversation, finding windows to briefly contribute additional value and inviting other people to share their expertise. The easiest, and likely most unpopular, self-accountability measure is to leave your camera on so you have to pay attention.
4. Remember That Emotions May Not Be Aligned
Leaders often experience difficulty listening during a meeting when they fail to realize they are in different emotional places than their team members. It is common for leaders to face challenging topics for days or weeks before discussing it with their teams. During this time, they navigate the entire change cycle (aka the grief cycle) and accept the path forward. Then, they expect their teams to be on the same page and become frustrated when they aren’t. Instead of listening to their team’s comments and demonstrating understanding, leaders become lost in their internal monologue, which is focused on how they believe their team members should be reacting.
5. Focus on What You Have, Not on What You Don’t Have
Accurately evaluating your audience’s communication during in-person meetings requires you to observe verbal and non-verbal behaviors while interpreting them within the context of the situation. Two of these factors don’t apply to online meetings: You can’t confirm the impact the physical environment may have on your audience, and the non-verbal behaviors are harder to see and less reliable.
Instead of lamenting these challenges, rejoice at your reduced workload, and focus on your audience’s verbal delivery. Your sharper focus will begin clearly revealing indications of shifting emotions and withheld information, including when team members suddenly talk more quickly or more slowly and more loudly or more softly, when their pauses before responding are too long or too short in relation to the question, and when their tone of voice appears to be incongruent with their messages. Additional alert signals, such as unfinished statements, misplaced pronouns and vague descriptions will also become clear. These enhanced observations will highlight opportunities for follow-up questions, additional due diligence, decisions to avoid and opportunities to seize.
Love them, hate them or tolerate them, online meetings are here to stay. Leaders with the discipline to adjust their approach, the foresight to fine-tune their focus and the awareness to account for their audience’s emotions will consistently reap the rewards driven by making more on-time critical observations in their meetings.