In a recent program I was conducting with a senior engineering team, one of the participants had a big “aha” moment. She realized that when trying to influence other organizations, it was more about listening than talking. Since the engineering group is a virtual team, we realized that the skill of “listening” may require a different focus in virtual than what we take for granted in person.
In a recent article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman described good listeners as “trampolines...Someone you can bounce ideas off of...they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.” The bad news? Zenger and Folkman also found that we think we are better at it than we actually are. If you are trying to collaborate or innovate on an idea, what happens if you aren’t listening? Without conversation, collaboration comes to a halt.
Why is listening so important to our organizational success? Linda A. Hill and colleagues note that “truly innovative groups are consistently able to elicit and then combine members’ separate slices of genius into a single work of collective genius.” Unless we listen and engage in conversation, we will miss the genius residing in our local or virtual teams.
In my work with leaders, managers, and teams that communicate almost everything virtually, it’s the listening piece that is always the hardest. Funny how we take for granted how connection to eyes and body language helps us listen. When we listen, we are “looking” for input and understanding all the time.
“How do I let the other person on the phone, WebEx, Skype, AdobeConnect or any other virtual platform, know that I’ve heard and understood their input?” “How do I foster virtual conversations that are so critical to getting people’s input and genius?”
My experience is that listening skills are the first to fall by the side in virtual meetings and conversations. Here are four simple ways to enhance your virtual listening skills in conversations and meetings.
1. Get “visible” when possible.
Every single interaction with a virtual team member is an opportunity. Make sure you get “visible” when possible. Video used in one-on-one conversations or in team meetings improves engagement in collaboration.
2. Acknowledge (by name) every person’s input.
Make sure everyone knows that you want to hear their voice and they have a role in influencing decisions. Reflect back to them what you heard. Too often we listen, analyze, and then push on with our recommendation, forgetting no one heard or saw if their input was listened to or had merit. Acknowledge out loud what you heard and confirm by name.
3. Ask good questions (of everyone) and dig deeply.
Linked to acknowledgement is asking good questions. This is a vital skill for virtual team communication. Nobody in the virtual room should be silent. Make sure that each person knows they are heard. Acknowledge input out loud and use it as a launching point to dig deeper. For example, “Marie, you propose that by modifying the last stage of implementation, we could streamline our deployment. What do you think we should explore as a team to make that happens?” Then sit back and listen!
4. Pass the baton and make ideas visible.
In the example above, you could give Marie the opportunity to whiteboard or share her ideas using screenschare. Be careful though. Screensharing is often used for the wrong reason - as a presentation tool. This is one case where it excels in helping build collaboration and gives team members the opportunity to see and hear ideas.
Utilizing these tactics will not only improve your listening ability in virtual settings, but help you to be a better listener and collaborator no matter what the conversation venue.