Active listening: Your influential superpower in a virtual world

“When I mentioned that I had to spend most of the weekend – again – working to meet these impossible project deadlines, my boss simply thanked me for my efforts and moved on. How could he not see how utterly depleted I feel? He’s never once asked if I’m okay.”

“My manager asked me to resend my original email, twice, after claiming she hadn’t ever seen it, even though I marked it as ‘urgent.’ And when she finally got around to reading it, she asked me for information that I had already included. After all that effort, I got the feeling she never even read the email I spent so much time crafting.”

“All of our team members responded to our manager’s directive to post possible solutions to a problem that’s putting our project at risk. They asked us to post ideas in our team portal, and days later, we still have no feedback of any kind. We’re getting the feeling that our manager isn’t listening to any of our ideas they keep asking for.”

Whether it’s in a meeting, email, a team chat or some other medium, when leaders aren’t paying attention, it can be obvious to everyone but themselves. And in a virtual world, the sense of frustration and loss team members feel can be far greater, since opportunities to circle back to replay or continue the conversation are few and far between. The frequent result: People shut down, stop contributing new ideas or responding to questions, let issues fester, slow down their progress and more frequently than ever these days, start looking for new opportunities.

In my recent conversation with Deb Coviello, Founder of Illumination Partners, and author of the brand new book, The CEO’s Compass, we explored questions as to why so many leaders of virtual/hybrid teams don’t seem to be paying attention these days, the impact it has on their credibility, on their teams and on their organizations as a whole. We also shared tips for helping leaders to demonstrate active listening skills in ways that others will notice and appreciate.

Some say that the most valuable thing we can give another person is our undivided attention. Why are so many leaders unwilling or unable to do this?

In part, it’s due to some of the same reasons many of us often don’t give each other our full attention for more than a moment or two. We’ve gotten used to living in a culture of inattention, where it can be considered perfectly acceptable to be texting to one person (or several) while conversing with another and scanning email at the same time, especially if we think no one is watching. Since we’re constantly scanning, whether it’s words, data, faces or voices, we don’t give ourselves time to reflect, absorb, or foster the kind of connections that create meaning and build relationships.

For leaders, especially those with large teams or overseeing complex projects, the tendency is often to move quickly, seeking the most expedient way to complete items on a checklist, produce deliverables, conduct transactions, etc. The irony is that they often move so quickly, they don’t take the time to gain clarity and end up needing many more conversations, emails, IMs, etc., causing a unnecessary frustration, delays and ill will as a result.

Is it harder to be a good listener in the virtual world?

Yes and no. If we’re using video to augment our conversations, whether in a team meeting or a 1:1, we can observe each other’s expressions, gestures and to some extent, body language. So if we’re paying attention, we can pick up valuable cues if we’re looking for them. But if we’re sharing our screen, checking the chat, or looking elsewhere, we’ll inevitably miss a lot. Plus, pixelated images can’t really convey much of the emotional content we’d pick up if we were in a room together.

In fact, recent research suggests that we can actually listen more deeply when we close our eyes, thereby eliminating many distractions that may veer our attention away from the conversation, such as noticing what someone is wearing or their office environment. Of course, this can feel awkward if we’re on video!

Some teams make the mistake of using multiple communication channels without agreeing on the intention and use of each one. The frequent result is that many communications are missed, which may cause the senders to imagine that the intended receivers were not listening. For example, one team member may be sending a review document via an email attachment, while their team members may be expecting to see it posted in a team portal or in a shared drive.

What can leaders do to become better listeners and observers when it comes to virtual meetings?

First off, leaders can design their meetings to allow sufficient time for conversation, allowing people to discuss, pause, reflect, paraphrase, test and affirm mutual understanding. This might mean narrowing the scope of the meeting objectives or finding other ways to discuss certain topics. Plowing through a chock-full agenda doesn’t allow for this type of give-and-take.

Leaders can also model the kind of behavior that will help everyone be better listeners by restating important concepts and asking clarifying questions. If they see looks of confusion, frustration, irritation, or boredom, they can notice out loud and try to discover the reason, diplomatically. (E.g., “I see a few people looking confused. Let me restate my question more clearly.” Or, “I sense that the energy level is low. Let’s take a quick break….” Or, “It seems that some people may not agree with the point I just made. Let’s talk about some of your reservations.”)

Ask open-ended questions that show you’re paying attention, and probe gently to find out more, encouraging more ideas. Paraphrase and summarize frequently to ensure you, and others, have gotten the essence of what’s been said.

When it comes to stating responses, be the last person to speak. Try to minimize any undue influence you might have on others’ opinions or ideas. Or try having everyone (including you) type a response in chat but ask them to hold off submitting their ideas until you give the go-ahead.

Setting aside time for check-ins and check-outs helps create the kind of social and professional connections that are often missing in a virtual workplace, and gives everyone a chance to share important ideas, questions and news. Spend time coming up with questions that will inspire lively conversation.

How can leaders listen more fully when it comes to using asynchronous communications?

Whether you’re using email, Slack, Teams, IM or some other form of asynch communications, use posts as an opportunity for a conversation, rather than a once-and-done transaction. To make the best use of asynch team communication channels, give your team members an incentive to participate by actively responding, posting and commenting on the conversations.

When people respond to a question you may have posed or if people offer suggestions or proposed solutions, make sure to acknowledge them, either 1:1, or as a note of appreciation to the whole team. The more specific your acknowledgement, the better. (Example: “Hey, Sara, I’d love to hear more about your idea for our new product launch. Can we ask you to present at our next team meeting” is much more gratifying response than “Great idea. Thanks.”)

As a team, be intentional as to how different communications will be used, by whom, and with what frequency. Be a role model for others by diving into the latest conversation on Teams or by starting a Slack thread with a provocative question or statement to stimulate active participation. It’s one thing to create a team communication plan, but it’s another to actually use it as intended. Be the change you want to see.

What are some other ways leaders of virtual/hybrid teams can be better listeners?

Above all, pay attention to what is not being said. This is a lot harder when all of our communications must be mediated by technology of one kind or another. Leaders have to be exceptionally curious, with antennae constantly out to detect unspoken feelings or issues that lay under the surface. If people aren’t speaking up in team meetings, find out why, either involving the whole team in the conversation, or privately, if it’s just one or two people who are reticent.

If the tone or tenor of conversation has taken a turn, whether in meeting or in written communications, try to understand what’s changed and seek to validate your assumptions. If people agree to a decision during a team meeting or in an online conversation and then fail to follow up on their assigned actions, follow up to find out what’s going on for them. Leaders of virtual teams need to be especially proactive about identifying, surfacing and addressing issues, given the few opportunities they have for unplanned conversations.

Another tip: Show someone you care by simply picking up the phone and calling. Unplanned phone calls have become a novelty for many of us, and even if it’s not a good time for the other person to speak right then, you’re making it clear that you welcome a conversation.

Why should leaders make the effort to become more active listeners?

By listening deeply, leaders can help cut through the noise and home in on key issues that need immediate resolution. When people feel that their voices are being heard and that their ideas are making a difference, they feel more respected, valued and inspired to even higher levels of performance. Simply put, when leaders are regarded as good listeners, their teams trust and respect them more.


Many of us imagine we’re attentive listeners, but in reality, we tend to speak more than we listen. Some people need training, practice and ongoing feedback to develop the needed skills. Seek someone outside of your usual sphere of influence or work group who can observe you and provide feedback. Shadow someone who has a reputation for excellent listening skills and interview them to find out the secrets of their success. Share with your team members the skills you’re working on and ask them in your 1:1s to give you feedback and ideas for improvement. Not everyone comes by active listening naturally. But we can all learn to be better listeners if we remember one simple mantra from Steven Covey: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”


Deb Coviello’s new book: The CEO’s Compass and her website at Illumination Partners

From Guided Insights:

Just Because You’re Silent, You May Not Be Really Listening – Guided Insights

Virtual Meetings: Why Bother Showing Up If You’re Not Really Present? – Guided Insights

How Video Meetings Mess with Your Head and How to Make it Better – Guided Insights

How Mindful Leaders Keep Calm Under Pressure, Inspire Better Team Performance – Guided Insights

From other sources:

Active Listening ( – Writing Center Learning Guide 2014

Are You Really Listening? ( – Harvard Business Review – March/April 2021

How to Practice Active Listening ( – May 2020

What Great Listeners Actually Do ( Harvard Business Review – July 2016

What Gets in the Way of Listening ( – Harvard Business Review – April 2014

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