Quick: What’s the #1 skill successful virtual leaders must have, which is usually hardest for them to cultivate? If you said “listening,” you’d be right.
Why it’s so important is pretty obvious. Virtual leaders must learn to listen for and interpret an enormous amount of information, within seconds, without benefit of body language or eye contact. And we’re not just listening for the words that are (or are not) spoken, but also the tone, pauses, inflections, cadence, lilt, laughter, throat-clearing and perhaps the toughest of all, silence.
So why is it so hard to practice superb listening skills? For starters, the emphasis on most business communications training is on how to create and present ideas, whether via report-writing, email or PPT slides. How to listen to others’ ideas gets but a footnote. Plus, few management training courses focus on the importance of demonstrating curiosity, crafting the right questions, listening generously, and expressing appreciation of others’ ideas. And for many command-and-control managers, taking the time to listen simply impedes progress. (“I don’t care what you think. Just do as I tell you.”)
Virtual team leaders must act as information hubs for their teams, helping to ferret out, assimilate, synthesize and share relevant, meaningful information across a dispersed team. Knowing how to ask the right questions and listen is the first step.
In this edition of Communique, I offer tips to cultivate better listening for leaders of virtual teams, where some or all members are geographically dispersed. For more listening tips, download this excerpt from our tips guide, 122 Essential Tips Guide for Leading High-Performance Virtual Teams.
- Open yourself to the possibility that other ideas are worth hearing. It’s not enough to just pay lip service by asking “Any more ideas?” two minutes before your meeting ends. (In fact, pretending to care about other ideas can be far worse than never asking in the first place.) Be honest as to whether your mind is open to assessing and applying new ideas. If you ask for people’s opinions, be prepared to do something with them. For example, if you’re ready to launch a new marketing campaign tomorrow, don’t wait to ask people what they think about it today, unless you’re willing to delay the launch as a result of some great new ideas. (And if you do ask for their opinions at this late date, be honest about what you are or are not willing to change as a result.)
- Don’t act like a know-it-all. Even though you may be the team leader, you don’t have to have all the answers. (And besides, you don’t even want to have all the answers – it’s way too much work!) Demonstrate respect for others’ perspectives by constantly soliciting opinions and ideas from team members, especially where they’re more likely to have fresher information than you in a particular area. Be earnest about your desire to know more and to learn from them. Encourage others on your team to appreciate the diversity of knowledge and experience by reaching out to other team members as well.
- Know what to ask about. We can take a page from journalists and business consultants, who tend to be naturally curious people and have a knack for posing the kind of open-ended questions that encourage people to speak openly. Think about where your team will most benefit by exchanging or debating ideas, and then craft a series of questions designed to draw out thoughtful responses. Let’s say your company is introducing a new service. Even though your team can’t alter the service, they can influence how it’s received by others. So rather than asking general questions about what people feel about the new service (which may be interesting, but may also chew up hours of time), try asking a few questions about how best to launch the service to employees or clients, or which aspects are likely to be most attractive, and to whom.
- Craft questions that elicit meaningful responses in a short time. With virtual teams, meetings tend to be brief and attention wanders easily. So it’s critical to think about how, exactly, to formulate a question in such a way that people can give a thoughtful response in a relatively short period of time (especially if you’re soliciting opinions from an entire team). For example, rather than asking: “So what does everyone think of the new org plan?” try something like: “What’s the #1 aspect of this new model your employees will like best? Least?” Or: “Imagine you’re about to share the new org model with your team. What’s the first question they’re likely to ask?” Have several different questions at hand, just in case some don’t work in the way you’d hoped. (For an excellent book on formulating great questions, try Dorothy Strachan’s Making Questions Work.)
- Don’t shy away from asking the tough questions. Given that people can’t see your expressions (and you can’t see theirs), asking difficult questions can be awkward or downright risky. Even so, it’s important that everyone on the team feel comfortable about surfacing sensitive issues or talking through problems when they crop up. Since virtual team members rarely see each other, unless they have a chance to talk things through openly, they’ll be left to make assumptions that may be erroneous, or draw conclusions that may be uncharitable. Be careful to pose questions in a way that invites people to be forthcoming, vs. putting them on the defensive. (Example: “John, can you share the process you used when customer X called to complain?” vs. “John, what did you do to cause customer X to get so angry?”)
- Give people a real opportunity to respond. If you’re going to pose a question, let people answer. Think through how long each response might take, and set aside the right time as part of your conversation. Or you can set a time limit (“in two minutes or less, describe….”). This can be especially helpful when you have long-winded participants. When teams span time zones, consider setting up an asynchronous Q & A forum of some type to augment (though not altogether replace!) a real-time information-gathering session. Portals, wikis and blogs can be great for this. For certain sensitive topics, you may want to allow people to provide ideas anonymously.
- Silence is golden, especially when it’s yours. And this does not mean putting yourself on mute! (In fact, leaders who are perceived to be multitasking during important conversations can lose the trust of their team members astonishingly fast.) Learn how to listen quietly, without waiting to jump in with your ideas. Have a pen and pad handy to jot down key ideas, draw pictures, or do whatever it takes to help you reflect and absorb what others are saying. Periodically interject affirmative comments to show that you’re listening, and try to save your questions until the other person reaches a natural pause.
- Paraphrase to demonstrate active listening. When you work as part of a virtual team, there’s really no way to know for sure if people are listening when you speak. A few monosyllabic responses can’t do much to assure people that their thoughts and feelings are really being listened to. Repeat back important points you heard, translating them into your own words, before you build on their ideas or ask a follow-on question. By paraphrasing accurately, you’re demonstrating that you not only listened to what the other said, but you’ve understood their points well enough to restate them. Paraphrasing is an especially important skill when different languages and accents impede shared understanding.
Learning how to listen deeply is an important skill for any type of leader, but for virtual leaders, it’s vital. It takes time, practice, and continual feedback from your team to make sure you’re getting it right. Start with few simple steps: Next time you’re on a call, move away from your screen (and anything else that might distract you), and close your eyes when others speak, so you can really see what they’re saying. You’ll be amazed at how well you’ll be able to read tones, nuances and inflections. Keep a list of well-crafted questions handy so you can quickly poll the team at any time. And perhaps most important, circle back to your team to let them know how you’ve incorporated their ideas, so they’ll be energized to contribute more ideas next time.
Listening Skills Tips for Virtual Team Leaders – excerpt from our tips guide, 122 Essential Tips for Leading High-Performance Virtual Teams
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Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan