The Integration and Data Services practice here at Credera has a monthly “Lunch and Learn” series where we have the opportunity to dive deep into presentations and discussions on specific hard and soft skills related to our jobs as consultants. Earlier this summer, we were given the opportunity to hear from Dr. Sarah Blalock, who spoke to us about listening skills and the qualities that make up a good listener. While these specific skills are very useful for those of us who work face-to-face with our clients, the majority of my interactions with my clients are via phone, email, and instant messaging. Luckily, by examining the reasoning behind the skills discussed in our Lunch and Learn, we can easily modify them to apply to “long-distance listening.” The following are four conventional tips for listening, applied to communicating virtually over long distances:
Look Directly at the Speaker
This is a well-known aspect of a good listener, but why? Making direct eye contact with a speaker indicates that the speaker has the listener’s undivided attention. When communicating over long distances, however, we rarely have the privilege of engaging in a face-to-face conversation. Because of this, listeners must demonstrate to speakers that they are giving their undivided attention another way. This can be easily accomplished by briefly mentioning at the beginning of a phone call that you would like to find a quiet place to take the call in private. By taking a moment to let others on your call know that you are making the effort to give them your undivided attention, they can immediately feel confident that you are actually listening to what they have to say.
Mind Your Posture
An open and inviting posture helps your speaker feel comfortable relaying their message. If listeners have their arms crossed or are slouching, they communicate to the speaker an air of indifference or negative judgement. Since posture cannot be observed over the phone, you can reap the same benefits another way by allowing speakers to complete their sentences before chiming in with your own thoughts. By not making assumptions about what has yet to be said and asking clarifying questions, you can help the speaker to see that you value their thoughts and opinions. Using simple phrases such as, “Before I give you my opinion, let me run through what your concerns are and make sure we’re on the same page.” Before chiming in with your thoughts, you minimize the chance that the speaker’s message is misinterpreted.
“Listen” to Body Language
During a face-to-face conversation, minding the speaker’s posture is as important as minding your own. A speaker’s confidence (or lack of confidence) in what they have to say can be seen in their posture, facial expression, hand motions, etc. Similarly, a speaker’s vocal tone over the phone can tell a listener a lot about how they are feeling in the conversation. For example, a raised voice can indicate anger or defensiveness, and a lowered voice can indicate apprehension. Speaking quickly can indicate nervousness, and speaking slowly may indicate that you as a listener are not quite understanding the message they are trying to communicate. Being conscious of these non-verbal queues allows a listener to adjust their responses accordingly and facilitate smoother communication.
Dr. John Gottman’s Golden Ratio
This final point is not a technique, but a rule to keep in mind for all relationships. Dr. John Gottman, while studying romantic relationships, proposed that healthy relationships maintained a ratio of five positive interpersonal interactions for every one negative interaction. While our working relationships are very different from our romantic ones, this ratio can and does still apply. I find it very easy to develop strong relationships with my team members who work a few feet away from me all day, every day, as we have plenty of opportunity to mix some fun into our workday. This becomes much more difficult, however, with my clients, who I rarely talk to unless I need something from them or they from me. Simply taking a few minutes at the start or end of a meeting to have a short non-work-related conversation (“How was your recent vacation?”, “I hear it’s been especially hot where you are lately!”, “Have your kids been enjoying their summer?”) can go a long way toward developing a strong working relationship with a long-distance colleague.
Treat Long-Distance Like Face-to-Face
Above any individual tip or technique, it is important to make an effort to always treat long-distance interpersonal communication with the same care you would treat a face-to-face conversation. This means limiting the use of the mute button to carry on your own conversations while others are talking, and even managing your posture and facial expressions as if the person on the other end of the line could see you. You might be surprised how changes in your physical demeanor can be expressed through subtle, involuntary changes in your voice.