Many people ask: how hard can it be to listen during a videoconference call? Surely it takes less effort than speaking or presenting?
The short answer is: it takes real effort and deliberate action! Listening is an active behaviour – and video demands even more consciousness.
Even when you’re not speaking or presenting, the camera is on you. You do not know when someone is looking at your face. An attentive, engaged expression is part of your executive presence.
Think of it this way: If someone snapped a screenshot of you, what expression would you want on your face in that picture?
Author Deborah Benton describes the ideal facial expression as a ‘relaxed/ready facial expression’. This is an excellent description to keep in mind: relaxed as you listen, yet ready to engage. Practice your relaxed/ready expression so you can don it deliberately on a video call.
Of course, expression is only an indication of listening – not a guarantee that the relaxed/ready person truly is listening. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of listening: it’s a cognitive process, but it is perceived behaviourally. That means you could be listening intently but not show it – so the speaker doesn’t know. You have to take that deliberate action to let people know you are listening.
So what can you do to ensure you’re listening attentively when you’re online?
Step One: clarify your listening goals. You may be listening to learn or gain information. You may be part of an online discussion to understand a process or points of view in order to make an informed decision. Or you may want to gather content you can relay to others in your team. Perhaps you need to mentor someone online. In this case, you are listening to build better rapport, enrich the relationship or gain understanding.
Goal-clarity supports your attentiveness. Keep reminding yourself why you want to listen well and you will stay on track.
Step Two: Set up your environment to support listening when you’re going online. Find a quiet space. Minimise noise disturbances by shutting the door and windows. Traffic or bird noises can be surprisingly disruptive.
Invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling earphones. Put yourself on Mute and Unmute when you wish to speak.
Set the room to a comfortable temperature: you’ll be more attentive and alert.
Ensure there’s a light source in front of your face. Your listeners will appreciate your face being clearly visible on the screen.
Keep a glass of water, pen, paper, tissues and reading glasses close at hand. Take a toilet break before the session starts. Keep your seated posture strong to stay alert. Better yet, stand: standing offsets the inherent risk of sinking too comfortably into your chair.
Other aspects of your body language can show you’re listening attentively. If you agree, nod your head slightly at intervals as you listen. Acknowledging sounds like ‘uh-huh’ don’t work as well online as in person, as they interrupt the audio and can distract the speaker; so use your body language to give that encouragement. Adopt an open posture: avoid crossing your arms across your chest.
Asking questions can be a valuable part of good listening when done right. Don’t interrupt the flow. Put a hand up physically, or use the ‘raise hand’ function on the videoconference app. Ask questions to clarify, not to score a point. Even if you disagree, phrase your question from a position of curiosity rather than confrontation.
Remember: when you’re attuned to your listening goals and you’ve prepared your environment well, you’ll be a much better listener.