A critical (yet often overlooked) communication skill for productive and effective video meetings is active listening.
Active listening goes beyond simply hearing what someone says. It means paying full attention to the whole picture (nuance, inflection and nonverbal cues), engaging and responding to demonstrate understanding. Listening actively shows respect for the speaker, which helps builds trust and rapport, essential components for relationship and business growth.
Being an active listener helps ensure connection and clarity during video meetings when it’s otherwise easy to get distracted and lose focus.
Here are some helpful tips to strengthen your active listening skills:
At the start of a virtual meeting, the host often sets the stage with an agenda and logistics overview. If you’re fiddling with your background, thinking about what you want to say or catching up on emails, you may miss important notes or instructions. Carefully following what someone says is fundamental to active listening.
Consider, for example, how often meeting attendees are asked to mute their microphones and, minutes later, you hear someone’s keyboard clicking or phone ringing. Not only is this disruptive, it signals to others that someone wasn't listening. Also, consider when a meeting participant brings up a topic that the host had just tabled for later or someone asks a question that the host already answered. In these situations, those who haven't been listening stand out for the wrong reasons. (Read more on what not to do when you’re tired of virtual meetings.)
Beyond what someone says, listen carefully to their tone, inflection, speed and volume. Through active listening, you can infer what points matter most to the speaker, what they want you to take away, as well as their confidence level, excitement and concerns. Paying attention to these details provides more context and nuanced understanding of their message than words alone.
Active listening is largely conveyed through nonverbal cues, such as observing the speaker’s facial expressions, posture and gestures to gain meaning. It's also communicated by what you reflect back through your own body language to demonstrate alertness, comprehension and interest.
Eye contact signals to the speaker that you’re paying attention. While it’s harder to do this virtually, you can approximate eye contact by looking directly into the camera. Other listening habits, like nods and smiles, can also help show that you’re following along. An occasional thumbs up is ok too.
When in the same room, you might say, “Mmhmm,” or “Yes,” as someone else is speaking. Depending on group size, you might continue to do this over video. If you're muted, these responses still work because of the facial expressions and body language you display when verbally affirming that you understand or agree. Keep in mind, however, that the close-up portrait view on video amplifies facial expressions, so avoid overly emotive reactions.
Everyone wants to sound professional and articulate, but in aiming for this, how often do you form a response in your head before the other person has finished speaking? However common, this is not a good habit because it impedes active listening. By mentally rehearsing a response, comment or question, you’re bound to miss key details and nuance in what the other person is (still) saying.
Similarly, if you’re fielding questions, really listen to what is being asked from beginning to end. It’s easy to miss a piece of a multipart question if you start thinking about a response immediately or jump into something that you didn’t mention previously and want to fit in now.
Repeating back questions and paraphrasing statements shows that you were listening and helps ensure clear and accurate communication. Confirming in real time whether you understand or need further clarification can save frustration (from misunderstandings) later, plus build rapport and trust with the other person.
This technique is as simple as starting off with, “So, it sounds like you’re saying [paraphrase].” Brief and careful note-taking can also help you stay on track of what you want to recap (as long as it’s not distracting to you or the speaker).
Distractions impede active listening, so it's important to minimize and ignore them whenever possible. It's tempting to focus on what the speaker is wearing, what's on a bookshelf or other details in the background. It’s equally tempting to fixate on the picture of yourself and how you look and sound. Too often these distractions (unintentionally) lead to tuning out what the other person is saying. If you regularly have to ask people to repeat themselves, this can reveal to others that you weren't focused.
The pace of video meetings is different from in-person (and even phone) conversations. When meeting someone face-to-face, non-verbal cues signal when another person is done speaking and you can respond. By phone, inflection patterns and silence thereafter are clear clues that the other person is done speaking. In virtual conversations, however, that initial beat of silence doesn’t always mean they’re ready to hand over the floor.
In video meetings a very brief silence can mean that the speaker needs to address an interruption on their end, switch to screen share or check the chat box for questions. The pause might also be due to technical difficulty, as slow connections are common. By paying attention and listening carefully, you’ll know better what’s going on before jumping in and potentially cutting off the speaker.
About two millennia before the first Zoom meeting, Greek philosopher Epictetus noted that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. This adage stands the tests of time and technology. Active listening improves conversations and leads to more effective outcomes because it shows that you respect the speaker, value their time and want to understand what they are saying.
This is especially important when on video where people feel more disconnected and on display than they do when attending meetings in person. Learn to listen more attentively, pick up on nonverbal cues and use body language to show engagement. Meetings are more effective -- and business relationships progress -- when people know they're heard and understood.