This Underrated Leadership Skill Is More Important than Ever

Of all the skills leaders need to be successful, active listening may be the most overlooked and underrated. Active listening has become even more vital during the global pandemic, as many organizations work in a remote environment. As a result, substantial communication has shifted to virtual platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

While meeting virtually may be the next best thing to being in person, it is not the same. Critical nonverbal cues are much harder to read when you interact with others on a video screen. You don’t typically see much more than a headshot, which limits your view of body language. Even facial expressions are more difficult to read with distorted eye contact and diminished video quality. These limitations compound as the group size increases.

Overcome these virtual communication challenges by sharpening your active listening skills. What is active listening? The United States Institute of Peace defines it as follows:

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.

What does it take to master active listening, especially in a virtual work environment? Here are seven tips to improve your active listening skills when communicating through a video platform.

Intend to listen. Like nearly all leadership skills, active listening is hard work. There are numerous obstacles to active listening in the most optimal circumstances. They are more pervasive in a virtual setting. Effective listening starts with the intent to listen before the conversation even starts.

Minimize distractions. Give your full attention to the people you are meeting. Reduce background noise and eliminate interruptions to the extent possible. Close other windows and clear your desktop of anything that tempts you to multitask.

Listen for vocal cues. The tone, volume, and pace of a person’s voice offer clues to the emotions behind what they are saying. A loud voice and fast pace could be a sign of nervousness, frustration, or excitement. Similarly, you can detect an individual’s concerns from their tone of voice.

Listen for themes and patterns. Notice the type of questions and concerns that are shared. They may indicate where you need to offer more clarity or work to get more buy-in for your priorities. They might also signal that someone on your team is struggling in some area.

Listen for what isn’t being said. What someone does not say can be even more informative than what they do say. For example, a team member who never mentions coworkers while discussing a collaborative project may be neglecting communication or experiencing conflict with them.

Clarify the message. Repeating and paraphrasing what others say ensures that all parties to the conversation gain the same meaning and understanding from it.

Ask, “What else?” Avoid the tendency to hurry through virtual communication. Pause enough to invite team members to express concerns, ask questions, and seek clarity. Use this classic coaching question to make a deeper dive into problems and issues that may be lurking below the surface.

The best leaders are great listeners. There is no better time than the present to improve your active listening skills!

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