In virtual communication we don’t get the nonverbal cues we normally get from in-person conversations. And people are often muted, or appear on multiperson screens that make it difficult for us to actively listen.
Yet no audience is in greater need of being listened to than a virtual audience. They crave the human experience that typifies face-to-face situations, and they deeply want to know that you are listening, and that you care about what they are thinking and feeling, and are ready to respond.
How can you make that happen? There are three powerful ways to listen virtually.
Listen with your body
Use your physical presence to listen. This goes far beyond using your ears to absorb what people are saying. Our entire body needs to convey attentiveness.
For starters, turn to the person who’s talking on the screen and physically align yourself with them while they’re speaking. This makes a huge difference. I recently attended a Zoom meeting and the host was talking to a small group, and one person was turned away at a 45-degree angle. She probably didn’t realize that the message she was sending was, “I’m not interested in what you’re saying.”
Use your eyes, too, to show that you’re listening. Don’t stare, but keep your eyes centered on the person who’s speaking by looking into the camera. Maintain an open and interested expression in your eyes. Avoid the temptation to look down at your phone, or around the virtual room. Focus your eyes on the chat line from time to time, but don’t let it distract you from the audience you’re addressing.
Use gestures, too, to show you are listening: nod when you agree with the speaker; move your body forward to listen to something you find particularly interesting, and gesture with open arms to acknowledge agreement.
Listen with your mind
Another way to listen is to show you’re mentally attuned to the ideas and thoughts that participants are sharing. Suppose you’re in a virtual team meeting and someone says they’ve got some new clients. You could reply with a cursory “good to hear.” But a better response would be to say, “Wow, bringing new clients in during the pandemic is a real accomplishment. Especially clients like these, who were tough to reach.”
When responding to questions in the chat, don’t just say, “We have someone from India, and someone from NY, and Pittsburg and London.” Take an extra second to engage and say, “Hey, here’s a thoughtful question. Lilly from Pasadena is asking what we should do if we’re working for a company that lacks emotional intelligence. Let me think for a moment.” Then respond with a considered point of view.
Another way to mentally listen is to probe. For example, you might say to a team member, “Tell us how you achieved that win!” Or “what timeframe do you see for that business?” By probing further, you show that you’ve heard and are keenly interested in learning more. Probing is also a great technique for deepening the conversation and moving toward collaborative solutions. So you might say, “Noah, that’s a great idea, and Sydney how would you like to partner with Noah on this project?”
Finally, in webinars and other large group formats, mental listening can involve polling participants or having a live Q+A at the end. These allow you to recognize the thinking in the virtual room and respond with constructive ideas.
Listen with your heart
A third way to listen is to engage emotionally with your audience. In essence, this means listening to their hearts.
Speaking coach Nick Morgan, in his book, Can You Hear Me?, describes the fallout from digital communication as being an emotional disconnect. “Because we get little information in virtual communication, we learn little about how other people are feeling,” he writes. “The mirror neurons that normally send us constant data about other people’s emotions are deprived of the sensory feed.” As a result, he says, “our normal high levels of empathy are reduced or rendered inaccurate.”
This emotional disconnect is the most unsettling aspect of virtual communications. Our listeners feel isolated, ignored, and emotionally distant from us. Knowing this means that you can do something about it. Reach out and show empathy. Show that you have not only heard what your audience has said, but that you feel what they feel.
We have so many opportunities to do just that. For example, we might begin a meeting with a general inquiry like “how are you feeling?” Or ask participants to share something about their week. If the group is large, say, ‘Who would like to tell us about something that happened to you this week—something that made you feel great, or not so great.'” Such stories allow you and others in the room to show empathy.
You can listen emotionally even if you don’t see your audience. For example if you’re conducting a webinar for employees who may be fearful about coming back to the office say, “I know many of you may be wondering what will happen when you return to the office. Will it be safe? I’m here to tell you what we are going to do to make it a safe place for you to work.”
Find ways to reach the hearts of your audience. Thank them, tell them how much you appreciate them, and how much you care about them. Touch their hearts in some way. And if someone on your team is struggling with a problem—professional or personal—take them aside, ask, “How’s it going?” and if they want to discuss it, listen with empathy.