We've all had that awkward experience where we've zoned out during a conversation, only realizing we've done it when we're asked a question we can't answer. Our attention spans are short enough, to begin with - and the stresses and challenges of remote working during a global pandemic definitely aren't helping matters.
But don't worry. Being a great listener isn't just some innate thing that only psychiatrists are born with. It's a skill that can be learned. Here's how to give your listening skills a boost before your next Zoom session.
Prepare Ahead of Time
If you know the topic and agenda of the conversation, get planning. Do any required research or reading so that you're up to speed and know what questions to ask - and importantly, what you want to get out of the conversation. You might also want to quickly Google whoever you're talking to so that you can better contextualize your questions or their answers. Being prepared shows the other person that you're interested and engaged, and that you take their time seriously. Don't be that person who shows up to a call or meeting completely frazzled and out of the loop. It's hard to listen when you're hunting around on your computer for a misplaced document.
Make it Easy on Yourself
Staying focused during a virtual meeting or on a call is far tougher than being present during a face-to-face meeting. The distance reduces accountability and makes all those little distractions invisible - meaning that they're more likely to weasel away at your attention. Make life easy on yourself by giving yourself just one task: listening. This is much easier to achieve if you create a conducive environment. Close your door, turn off unnecessary screens, put your phone away, and shoo any cute pets (or children) out of the room. When you're not distracted by a phone or checking emails while talking, you can give a conversation your full attention, and the person on the other end of the line will take note.
Show That You're Engaged
All those phone calls filled with awkward "uh-huh" and "mm hmms" aren't just empty noise. They're an important communicative act called backchanneling, and they're used to show that you're paying attention. Instead of sitting silently on the phone, throw in a few of these to indicate your engagement. If your meeting has visuals, try leaning towards the camera, nodding or tilting your head. All of these are markers of someone who's listening, and they help move the conversation along for both parties.
Make it About Them, Not You
Good listeners are also good participants. They ask open-ended questions in response to what's being said, and they repeat back key discussion topics or action points to show comprehension. What they don't do is talk over the top of the other person. Before chiming in, always bear in mind the "W.A.I.T" acronym ("Why Am I Talking?"). Aim to do at least twice as much listening as talking. Additionally, skip the agenda. Good listeners don't aim to bludgeon someone over the head with their own opinions. They want to hear the perspectives and ideas of the other person - and ideally come away with a new or surprising insight.
Listening in the age of COVID-19 is no easy task. We all have so much going on that it can be difficult to clear our heads and focus on someone else. But by putting yourself in the moment and following the steps above, you just might find that you really connect with another person. And that's the mark of a great listener - and leader.