Get more done by being a better listener

Are you a poor listener? In the context of distributed teams, “listening” needn’t be restricted to an auditory process; it includes your ability to take in information through all communications channels.

Bad listeners rarely realize they suffer this limitation. But there are some common tip-offs:

  • You often find you’re involved in miscommunications
  • You find the same colleagues ask you the same questions repeatedly
  • You often reply to emails without reading them, or their attachments, in full
  • You skip meetings, arguing that the minutes will keep you up-to-date.

As humans, we need to filter and prioritize the information we attend to, but bad listeners can have a detrimental effect on team output, especially if they’re gatekeepers in the production process, or have quality control responsibilities.

Becoming a better listener in the online space isn’t difficult, but it does take discipline. Here are some tactics to help develop better listening skills.

Chunk written comprehension tasks

We’re often more likely to skim-read emails, reports, and other documentation if we’re trying to fit it in around “real work.” Of course, understanding the information we receive is usually critical to that real work. It needs our attention.

Try setting aside chunks of time to do background reading and the communication it prompts. This can help you mentally to validate these comprehension tasks themselves as a priority, and give you a clear space in which to focus. Allot space in your schedule to the tasks you see as distractions, and attend to them in that timeframe. You’ll be more likely to get something useful out of that information in a dedicated space.

Miss a meeting? Ask for details

Competing priorities may necessitate your missing a meeting occasionally. But rather than simply glancing over the minutes when they arrive in your inbox, try speaking to a colleague who did attend about what took place.

Think about which of the attendees will have attended to the information that’s relevant to you; perhaps ask a couple of people to get a composite picture. This way, your understanding of what took place won’t suffer because your colleague answered a call halfway through the meeting and missed ten minutes of discussion.

Also, try to ask specific questions. “Anything happen in the meeting yesterday?” will solicit a shrug of the shoulders more often than not. Unless you indicate to your colleague the general topics or items from the agenda that interest you, they’re unlikely to know what to mention. Their minds will likely drift to the items that were top priorities for them, or the things with which they feel most comfortable, or are most interested in.

Respond in full

Good listening is about good communication. Unless you respond to queries in full, and address all of the concerns your colleagues raise, those issues will just keep hanging around. What you don’t attend to today will be back to haunt you tomorrow — unless your colleague gives up, and makes their own executive decision. And if they’re asking you for direction, they probably don’t feel equipped to make the call themselves.

If you can chunk tasks like email, progress reporting, and status phone calls and conversations, you should find that you have both the time and focus needed to respond to queries in full. As you do so, you may well find that some questions are based on assumptions or misunderstandings that you can clear up on the spot.

Make sure they understand

No matter how clear or succinct your communication, it pays to ask the person you’re speaking to if they understand what you’ve told them. Finish all your emails with the line “Let me know if you have any questions,” and you’ll be surprised how many come back needing clarification — and that goes for video chat, IM, and presentations too.

Asking if your colleagues understand what you’re saying is important not just for getting things done, but also for understanding where and how your communication is missing the mark. What makes sense to one colleague will bewilder another, so asking if they understand will help you tailor your communication to individuals, and avoid time-consuming misunderstandings.

Work to your strengths

Maybe you like to check task status face-to-face with your team members periodically throughout the day. Or maybe you prefer them to update their shared task lists with their tasks’ status at the end of each day. Each of us has our own preferences for the way we receive and respond to information, and of course we all need to adapt to each others’ preferences, at least to some degree.

Take a long, hard look at the ways you prefer to handle communications. Consider everything — from whether you’re a visual or auditory person, to whether you prefer IMing a colleague rather than stopping by their desk and interrupting them.

Understanding your preferences for communication will let you find commonalities with your team members — areas where communication is easy — and identify the points of difference — areas where you’ll know you really need to pay attention if you’re to get and communicate the required information effectively.

These are five easy way to become a better listener in your team. What advice can you add from your own experience?

Image courtesy stock.xchng user borissey.