When speaking with someone in person, you know if they are listening. I mean, really listening or just pretending. When having these in-person conversations, we’ve developed ways to inaudibly say, “Yes, I’m here listening—and I hear you.” We smile and nod, make eye contact, or sit facing the person we’re speaking to, body bent slightly forward. Opposite visual cues reveal if your conversation counterpart is distracted, with thoughts a million miles away. These external behaviors help us navigate face-to-face communication. But what happens for those of us communicating with clients and coworkers exclusively by digital means?
It’s not an easy task. I’ve been on conference calls when someone asks my opinion, but I have no idea what was just said because I was trying to multitask and tend to an urgent email. It’s such instances that remind me of the value of a skill I learned many years ago: active listening.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is a way to indicate, verbally and non-verbally, that you are present in a conversation. When practicing active listening, you’re not only paying attention, you’re really hearing what others have to say—all while withholding judgment.
For example, a few ways you can reinforce understanding include:
“So, what I hear you say is…”
You’re really hearing what others have to say
“If I understand you correctly, what you need is…”
“To recap, we’re going to do A, and once that decision is made, we’ll proceed with B.”
Advantages of Active Listening
Conversations peppered with the phrases above attempt to clarify, reflect, and summarize the information you’ve heard. It also gives other parties in the conversation the opportunity to affirm or correct your understanding of that information.
Possessing these skills transcends the necessity of daily conversations. When all members of a team use active listening skills with each other and with clients, you are:
- Solidifying your relationships by demonstrating consideration and respect
- Preventing misunderstandings by allowing all present in the meeting to be on the same page
- Increasing productivity by avoiding false starts
Practice Active Listening in Your Next Meeting
- Avoid Distractions. When going into a meeting over Zoom or UberConference, snooze chat and email notifications. If you’re anything like me, you already have 30 different things competing for your mind’s attention. By removing electronic pings and dings, you’re better able to concentrate on the meeting at hand.
- Listen without judgement or an agenda. The fast pace of agency work can sometimes make one too focused on the immediate goal: getting the project to the next step so deadlines are met. While goals and agendas are important, it’s equally important to meet your clients and team members where they are. If you’re too focused on your own agenda, you risk losing track of what is important to clients and team members, which in turn can devolve into competing priorities and push-pull dynamics.
- Paraphrase key points. In your next meeting, make sure you’ve understood key points of the discussion by repeating them back. Then, wait for confirmation that you have it right or listen carefully to any correction that follows. Some ways to get this started are, “If I understand you correctly, our main goal is to…” and “So, what I hear you say is that our first priority is…” This isn’t the time or place to interject a new point or include your opinion on what others have said. The primary goals of this technique are to ensure you’ve understood and to communicate this understanding to others in the meeting.
Possessing these skills transcends the necessity of daily conversations
The steps above are only the beginning of the active listening skills you can use to improve your interpersonal communications. By practicing the above steps, you’re on your way to making active listening a foundational part of your communication style. Conversations without body language feedback can be challenging, but using active listening can help ensure presence and clarity in all digital conversations.