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6 Simple Tips to Improve Listening in Virtual Meetings

In 2020, amidst the global pandemic, we shifted from in-person to almost exclusively remote work environments, swapping the conference table for the screen. Shortly thereafter, we began to collectively experience something new called “Zoom Fatigue.” This phenomenon is the utter exhaustion and burnout employees feel as a result of countless hours spent using virtual platforms for communication versus face-to-face meetings.

So far, 2021 is turning out to be no different. We are living in the continued era of virtual meetings with no change on the horizon any time soon, and it’s affecting our listening.

Under normal circumstances, staying present and being able to fully commit to listening can be challenging. However, in this new reality of digital interaction and mental fatigue, listening has a new set of challenges. Because listening is a cognitive function and we listen with our brain not our ears, when our brain is tired, our listening falters.

Creating a workspace free of distractions from pets, partners, kids, etc. is a good start to improve listening. However, the number one thing we can do to enhance our listening capacity in virtual meetings is understand WHY it is that we feel the fatigue that we do and take steps to mitigate it.

Most agree that it is much easier to perceive meaning and gain understanding while sitting around the conference table, than it is through our laptop and headset. This is because we tend to rely on body language, shifts in facial expression and listen for tone and inflection to gain greater understanding of the speaker and their message. In a Zoom setting, it’s much harder to process subtle cues and more difficult to feel connected with others when we’re not sharing the same environment. As it turns out, this is not only unsatisfying, but it’s exhausting.

Research has proposed another reason virtual meetings are so draining. There are audio limitations. There is a verbal response delay that actually negatively impacts our interpersonal perceptions. Even minor changes to the physical and auditory cues we’ve come to rely on can inhibit our ability to stay focused and energized, even when we are really interested in the subject of the meeting. The lack of human connection we experience through screens is tiring. Simply stated, virtual meetings don’t provide an adequate reward for the effort it takes to stay engaged.

Setting ourselves up for optimal listening is key. There are some very simple things we can do to create a “Listening Environment” for virtual meetings in order to maximize our brain’s ability to focus:

· Avoid the temptation to multitask. Our brain is fatigued as it is. Attempting to multi-task or switch-task will just further drain the battery and set us up to miss critical information.

· Set up in an area with a door you can close.

As a leader, what can you do to mitigate your team’s Zoom Fatigue and improve their listening capacity in virtual meetings?

1. When group collaboration isn’t necessary, consider a traditional phone call for a one-on-one meeting. A phone call is less taxing to the brain because it requires only one thing to pay attention to – a voice.

2. Have shorter meetings to maximize attention span and listening capacity. The most common meeting lengths are 30-60 minutes. Parkinson’s Law states that meetings will tend to run as long as the amount of time allotted for them. Schedule shorter meetings with a prepared agenda. Clarify the specific deliverables and required outcome for the meeting. It’s surprising how much can be accomplished in 30 minutes with the discipline to stick to the plan.

3. Avoid status report meetings. If information can be adequately shared in other ways, reserve meetings for collaboration, problem-solving and decision-making. Sharing data or detailed information to get everyone up to speed is setting folks up for fatigue and temptation to multi-task, especially for team members who aren’t data driven by default or don’t need the information to execute and fulfill their job responsibilities.

4. Invite only those that really need to be there. Remember, everyone doesn’t need to be in every meeting. More often than not, people can be informed after the fact without being on the call in real-time. Allow people to conserve their listening energy for the Zoom meetings they really need to attend.

5. Be very clear what the purpose of the meeting is and communicate it to those involved. Prepare them to focus their listening on what is most important, in order to conserve cognitive energy they might otherwise use trying to figure out the crucial take-aways.

6. This tip applies to everyone, leaders and individual contributors alike. Observe yourself and acknowledge when you are tuning out, disengaged and/or losing focus. When our brain tires our listening suffers. When our listening suffers, we are more likely to have misunderstandings and miscommunication that impact work outcomes and decision-making. Make an effort to reengage by asking a question or seeking a different perspective versus disengaging and potentially missing critical information.

The bottom line is virtual meetings are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Zoom Fatigue is real and is impacting our ability to stay present through screens. To improve our listening capacity we have to set ourselves up for success. That means creating the most favorable environment free of avoidable distractions and scheduling fewer, shorter meetings, so that when we do show up, we know what to listen for and have the cognitive power to stay present and fully listen.

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