The Art of Listening in Virtual Teams

by Katy Lindsay

As we all come to terms with the fact that physical distancing is going to be with us for a while, it is becoming clear that virtual teams are here to stay.

In this new ‘normal’ for office workers, we’re getting pretty good at the technological aspects of staying in touch with our colleagues. However, it is going to take longer to learn the soft skills that we’ll need to make virtual teams work as well as they should.

In this article, we’re going to focus on one particular soft skill that we often take for granted: listening. More specifically, we’re going to look at some of the ways people might need to adapt, and how to improve listening skills when working in a virtual team.

The two main aims of listening

Listening is broadly about two things: firstly, acquiring information and secondly, building or maintaining relationships. In Aptimore’s experience, when it comes to building good relationships with others, the importance of listening skills cannot be overstated. Showing someone that you’re listening to them openly and non-judgmentally makes them feel valued and respected. When people learn strategies like ‘active listening’, they are taught how to ensure that the speaker feels properly heard, validated and comfortable to keep talking openly. At the same time, the techniques help the listener to stay focused on what they are hearing.

For instance, in ‘active listening’, the listener is taught to summarise what the speaker has said, using fewer words, to show the speaker that they were heard. One of the great benefits of active listening is that, since the listener has this ‘goal’ in mind during the whole conversation, he or she genuinely has to continue to pay attention and is much less likely to get distracted.

Many of us have worked hard on developing these skills and might think we’re pretty good listeners. However, things are different in a virtual team, and it turns out that some of our well-honed listening techniques may no longer work so well. Whether you’re starting from the ‘expert listener’ group or a ‘meh, not so good at listening’ group, here are some new factors that you might like to consider.

1. Noisy listening doesn't work on Zoom

What do I mean by ‘noisy listening’? Surely listening is quiet? Doesn’t the speaker talk and the listener just shut up? Well, no. People who have developed excellent face-to-face listening skills have learned to use small, encouraging noises like ‘Mmm’ or ‘U-huh’ to keep the other person talking. These noises tell the speaker that the listener is still with them. They work beautifully in face-to-face conversation, but they’re a terrible tactic in a video conference. The software tracks the noises from all participants and moves the camera and audio to pick up the person who is making the most obvious sound.

So, a great listener who regularly deploys the ‘Mmm’ technique in a face-to-face situation unwittingly finds that they are disrupting the flow of the video call, causing the speaker’s words to be lost, having precisely the opposite effect to the one they intended.

What should our good listener do instead? Well, happily, there’s another great technique that does still work. Smiling and very gentle nodding does work well on video. If you’re already someone who works hard at encouraging others, then you just need to remember to do this non-verbally when you’re using video.

2. Agape is better than a blank face

If you’re not consciously aware of sending out positive vibes when listening to others, then the chances are that on video conference you may be at risk of showing what we might call ‘blank face’.

Have you ever noticed how in a face-to-face meeting, a speaker will often gravitate to keep talking to one particular person? Sometimes that’s because he or she is talking to the boss or the potential client. However, where there is no power element the speaker is probably focusing on the people who are radiating encouragement, nodding slightly, smiling, looking attentive.

The speaker seeks validation by talking to these people and not to the people who are radiating neutrality or absence of interest. On a video conference, the issue of ‘blank face’ can be even more pronounced from the speaker’s perspective, as there is no chance to ‘feel’ how interested the team or audience is.

So, as a listener who is interested in promoting excellent team dynamics, it is your job to radiate positive sentiment while listening. If you’re of a classical inclination, look up the six words the Greeks used for different forms of love and try to feel ‘agape’, the general sense of love for everybody. In any case, make an effort to relax and soften your face, and feel good thoughts about this person or team.

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3. It's easy for people to get distracted

Since listening is about gaining information as well as building relationships, it’s essential that a listener stays focused enough to hear and process what the other person is saying. Even in regular times, this is becoming harder, as we’re all coping with multiple technological distractions. We often see people checking their phones in face-to-face meetings, certainly losing several minutes of focus every time they do so.

The risk is potentially even higher when you’re not in the same room. A CEO I know says she wants all her calls with her senior teams to be on video so that she can make sure they’re concentrating and not doing something else entirely. However, even seeing people on screen does not necessarily mean they’re listening well. I’ve been guilty myself of checking my phone surreptitiously on a Zoom call when the conversation moves to an area that seems less relevant to me.

To a great extent, it’s up to the person leading the call to make sure that meetings are lively enough that people feel engaged. It is also helpful if people think they may be called upon to contribute at some stage in the meeting.

In a virtual environment, this requires even better facilitation skills than would be required in a face-to-face situation, and it certainly means that the leader has to put more time into planning the call, thinking about how to manage the call to keep everyone actively engaged.

4. Pick your strategy to stay focused

For a person who actively wants to listen well, the first step is to give up the foolish idea that they can maintain concentration levels while multitasking. However, even putting the phone aside will not necessarily stop your mind from losing focus, drifting off and missing much of what is being said.

In her paper ‘How to Monitor Listening More Efficiently: Meta-Cognitive Strategies in Listening’, Margarete Imhof points to three key strategies that people can use to improve the quality of their listening:

  • Interest monitoring – the listener monitors their level of focus and interest in the topic and makes an effort to re-engage when they feel themselves drifting.
  • Asking pre-questions – the listener asks themselves questions before the conversation to identify things they might want to know from the conversation. They can also do this during the conversation, to reconnect. These questions create a goal or set of goals for the discussion.
  • Elaborative techniques – these require the listener to work with the material they hear cognitively. This might involve critiquing/analysing the information or encapsulating/synthesising the information.

The ‘active listening’ strategy of summarising what the person has said and feeding it back to them in fewer words is an example of an elaborative technique. You can still use this in a virtual team, but on a multi-person call, you’re probably better doing it in your head.

The pre-questions can be a relatively easy strategy to adopt by taking some time before the call to think about a range of things you’d like to find out from the call. Then, if you find yourself losing focus, bring yourself back with questions like, “What is known/unknown here?”, “What else do we need to know?” or “What would have to change here to change our decision?”

Of course, if you’re listening well, then asking one or two pertinent questions on a call is also a great way of showing others that you’ve heard them.

5. Listen for clues about how someone is feeling

As a final thought, I’d like to go back to a theme we’ve covered before, which is the importance of listening out for people’s emotions in a time when many people are suffering high anxiety. In a previous article , I’ve talked about the value of focusing on the voice to pick up the auditory clues about how someone is feeling. In particular, anxiety, depression and tension can all be heard in the voice, as a result of specific physiological changes.

You’ll probably find it almost impossible to pick these emotions up on a video call, and in any case, on a group call, you won’t be able to probe any emotions you do detect. So, if you’re working in a virtual team do make sure you use phone calls for some of your one-to-one conversations with colleagues so that you can really listen out for how they are.


Download the Guide

To read more about how to communicate effectively and the human side of leading and working within newly remote teams, we have created a more detailed guide on ‘How to get the best from your virtual teams’.

It looks at a range of aspects of managing remote teams, including the importance of building interpersonal connections between team members. With clear ‘Take Outs’ from each section, we hope that you will find it practical and useful.

Download the guide to learn:

  • The psychology behind managing a successful virtual team
  • How to run productive team meetings online
  • How to adapt your approach for different types of people/personalities
  • Actionable insights to help your virtual team thrive



About the Author

Katy Lindsay is the founder and CEO of Aptimore, an online learning platform that develops management and leadership skills. She has extensive experience in assessing and developing managers and teams in organisations of all shapes and sizes, ranging from SMEs to global corporates.

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