As we collectively settle into a long stretch of working from home, we’re quickly adjusting to a host of new challenges. Seemingly overnight, we’ve all become experts in using “gallery view” on Zoom. We’re gradually working out which headsets will best enable us to drown out the sound of barking dogs and screaming children. We’re even figuring out what counts as an acceptable Online dress code, somewhere between pajamas and suit.
One challenge that’s harder to surmount virtually, however, is the art of people skills. As a team leader, it’s not enough to establish a common set of objectives and an accountability structure. You also need to connect personally with the people who report to you if you’re going to persuade them to embrace your goals.
That’s a lot harder to do when there’s a computer monitor between you and your team. But it’s not impossible.
One useful strategy in these circumstances is to practice what’s known as active listening. Active listening means, as its name suggests, actively listening. It requires concentrating intently on what is being said, rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker. So what does this skill imply in practice?
For starters, it means paying attention to body language. Are your team leaning forward in their chairs, ready to pounce, when they ask a question? This can suggest an aggressive subtext. Or are they leaning back in a relaxed posture, which might imply a more supportive, or at least neutral, question? What about eye contact? Are they looking directly at you because they’re engaged in what you’re saying? Or are they looking away, either because they’re bored, intimidated or uncomfortable? As a leader, you need to be able to pick up on these subtle, non-verbal cues and adjust your management style accordingly.
One reason active listening is so vital – particularly in an online environment – is that it shows you’re paying attention to what’s being said. It can be tempting, particularly during an online meeting, to sneak a quick peek at your email or sketch out a five-point plan for your next meeting. Don’t. If you pull your attention away from the person in front of you, you’ll fail to hear the question properly and subtly convey that something else is more important than what they are saying. Think about the message this sends when someone does it to you. You can convey interest in whoever’s speaking by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, or simply saying “Yes” or “Mmm hmm.” By providing this subliminal, positive feedback to your team, they will feel more comfortable communicating openly and honestly about the challenges they’re facing in being productive and delivering results.
Another technique for actively listening is to use questions to engage your team. Leaning into your curiosity will enable you to understand what they need in order to learn and progress. Try to pick up not only what’s going on at work, but also in their personal lives. Is someone caring for an older relative? Trying to home school or take care of young children while also working a full-time job? Are they engaging in enough self care? When you listen carefully to their answers, you’ll be much better positioned to address their needs and concerns. And at the end of the day, that’s what effective management is all about.
In our new online Webinar series, Communicating Virtually, our team of expert facilitators at iOpener will show you how to hone your listening skills so as to be fully present, even with a distributed team. We’ll also introduce a host of other tools to help you lead with confidence, inspiration and impact.
In the current environment, your communication style is more business-critical than ever. Make sure you’re fully equipped to rise to this challenge.