Closing the Door of Distraction: How to Improve Listening in a Noisy Virtual World

As the world has learned to embrace the normalcy of virtual meetings, it has literally opened the flood gates for distractions.  It’s a level far beyond the occasional glancing at your phone under the table during that important company meeting!  Today, when it comes to distractions that keep you from listening during a meeting, the virtual environments have opened the door of distraction to include an arsenal of challenges that test even most disciplined mortals!

The competition for one’s attention is exhausting.  Multiple monitors, tablets, cell phones, background TV’s, pets, pop-up adds, texts, smart watches, Breaking News alerts are all competing.  And of course, if you’re by a window, there’s all the outside activity pulling at you.  Let’s not forget those who “attend” while they are driving, you know they are soaking in every detail!  Gives new meaning to: “Squirrel!”   

To make it even easier to appear to be listening, (when you’re doing anything but) is turning off video.  You know that feature was created by the person who is convinced multi-tasking is the only way to get anything done.  It really has nothing to do with not showering before a meeting, heck it was probably created so you could shower during the meeting!   

How can you improve your listening?

Remove distractions

Take an honest inventory of distractions that are preventing you from listening.  Don’t sugar coat it…halfhearted attempts net halfhearted results. Is your email open? What about social media alerts? Is your phone in silent mode face down (bonus for out of reach)?  If a virtual meeting, have you closed all screens except for those directly related to the meeting?  And no other external video or TV distractions?  Note: Netflix streaming in the corner of your screen is not white noise!  The challenge with this is we have gotten so used to distractions we are becoming numb to them.  The bottom line is our brains are not wired to multi-task near as much as society tries to make us believe.  You must remove distractions.

Affirmation still works

In the virtual meeting world, affirmation may seem a little awkward, especially when proper etiquette is to mute yourself when you aren’t talking.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t affirm, and affirming doesn’t mean agreeing, it’s acknowledging.  Simply nodding your head let’s the speaker know you are listening and it improves the level of retention you’ll have, because it increase the engagement.  Personally, I haven’t been big on the emoji buttons, but that is another way to show affirmation if you’re in a virtual meeting.  And there is nothing wrong with saying a statement like “Yes” or “I understand” even if you are muted.

Reserve judgement

Talk about one that has little room for error.  When you’re listening, let the speaker get their entire thought out before interjecting or clicking the “raise hand” button.  Our short attention spans are so quick to pass judgement on everything that happens.   You miss half of the message when you interject and you often miss the actual point.  That is not listening.   It is OK to disagree with someone and it’s even Ok to have healthy and sometime heated discussions, but you have to avoid judging what someone is saying before they even finish stating their comment or question. 

Recap the message

It is scientifically proven that repeating a message back to the person you’re talking to helps move the content of the conversation from short-term to long-term memory.  If you’re across the table from someone a recommended technique is to say these six words, “So what you are saying is….”, and then recap what the person said.  In a virtual world you can still do that especially if it’s a small group.   In a larger group you may want to write it down or type it in the chat, either way you are forcing yourself to summarize the message improving your retention and letting the speaker know they are being heard. It also sets the stage to transition to a next subject or topic.

What about you?  How do you close the door of distraction?  Is the virtual world making is harder or easier to listen?  Do you think that people talking “view” you as a good listener?  Is your video off most of the time? What would your employees & co-workers say?  What about your family?   Do you have any tips to improve virtual listening or listening in general that you would like to share?  As always, we value your comments in the space below.  

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach