How to apply active listening skills to your remote team

Two women sitting at a table having a conversation

In the business world, active listening is a critical skill that receives far too little focus and even less practice! Business leaders who can improve their active listening skills will be able to better connect with their remote team. As the coronavirus pandemic throws the economy into disarray and sends the majority of workers home for the foreseeable future, active listening skills will become more critical than ever.

Your employees need to know you hear them, and you need to understand their concerns and challenges so that you can all perform your best in this uncertain and challenging new landscape.

What is active listening?

Before you can become an active listening master, it helps to know what active listening actually is. While many definitions of the term exist, our favorite comes from VeryWellMind.com, which states:

“Active listening refers to a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner in a positive way. It is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgment and advice. When you practice active listening, you make the other person feel heard and valued.”

Most of us have experienced the opposite of active listening. Have you ever been to a company meeting that featured employees checking emails on their phones under the table, whispered conversations while someone is speaking, or distracting interruptions from that one person who always needs to immediately share their opinion?

Perhaps you’ve been guilty of these poor listening transgressions in the past. If so, then you already know that poor listening leads to low comprehension, shows disrespect to the speaker, and could result in miscommunications and costly errors.

How active listening can make you a better leader

The great Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca once said, “business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

Active listening establishes trust

The most important benefit of active listening is that it will allow you to build trust and rapport among your employees. When the people on your team know you are willing to listen to them without judgment or interruptions, they will be more willing to come to you with issues, concerns, and ideas. These are exactly the things you need to hear from your team. Trust builds respect, and when employees respect the leaders they work for, they take more pride in their work.

Active listening prevents miscommunication

One of the distinguishing factors of active listening is that you are seeking to understand the speaker’s entire message. When you work to understand what the speaker is trying to convey, you’ll be much less likely to misunderstand their intentions or add in your own assumptions or spin on their words. Getting the full picture prevents hurt wrong decisions, confusion, and costly mistakes.

Active listening helps you understand your team and their needs

Have you ever had a boss who just didn’t seem to understand you or what you were trying to accomplish? As an active listener, your job is to really hear what your team members are telling you and to use this information to help everyone improve. This is a good opportunity to learn about each employee’s biggest challenges, what gets them excited about what they do, and about their biggest concerns.

It’s amazing what information you’ll learn when you start listening, and now you can act on this information. You can help your team members overcome their challenges, position them to focus on their strengths, and address the concerns that might be holding them back from their full capabilities.

How to apply active listening skills

What does active listening look like in a business environment? The company Mind Tools developed a handy list of five important active listening techniques that you can start practicing on a daily basis:

Pay attention

Start by giving the speaker your undivided attention. That means putting away your devices, ignoring distractions, and listening to the speaker’s words as well as their body language. Keep in mind that a lot of communication is non-verbal.

Show that you’re listening

Make eye contact with the speaker and react to their words. Don’t just smile and nod to be polite. React authentically and show the speaker that you are interested.

Defer judgment

Active listening doesn’t mean you shouldn’t form an opinion or eventually ask questions or offer counter-arguments. However, start from a place of openness and try to understand the speaker’s perspective as they communicate. Also, resist the urge to interrupt or to start forming a response or counterargument while they are still speaking. (Don’t worry, we’re all guilty of this sometimes!)

Provide feedback

Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions or request clarification at the appropriate time. Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger, owners of the leadership consulting firm Zenger/Folkman assessed data from 3,492 participants in a development program and found that participants with the most highly rated listening skills were those who “periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.”

Respond appropriately

Writing about their active listening finding for the Harvard Review, Zenger and Folkman explain that, “Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way ‘speaker versus hearer’ interaction.” Part of active listening includes responding to the speaker. Try to be candid and honest while also maintaining an environment where the speaker feels confident and supported.

How to facilitate active listening in a virtual team

Active listening can feel like it’s in short supply when your team members are working out of multiple locations. However, now could be the perfect time to show virtual leadership and encourage your employees to really listen to what their coworkers have to say.

  • Schedule video meetings instead of group calls so that listeners can observe all the non-verbal cues of the speaker. (Here are all the tools you need to make the most of your virtual meetings.)
  • Ask your team members to ignore all non-urgent texts and emails during the meeting so they can give the speaker their undivided attention
  • Ask team members not to interrupt one another. If someone is speaking, you may wish to put the other listeners on mute.
  • Model the active listening skills you want to see by following the five techniques outlined above.

Put your active listening skills to good use

It’s now or never to develop your active listening skills. As your workers settle in at their home offices, they will likely have plenty of questions and concerns about how your company will move forward in the current environment. Keep in mind that active listening doesn’t always require verbal conversations. If you really want to hear from your team, you can always send out an anonymous poll or set up a Q&A through Poll Everywhere.

If you and your team are new to remote work, keep reading to learn how to host an effective online meeting. In the meantime, put your active listening skills to work. Your team needs you!