Practicing active listening in online conversations

Ruby Kolesky
Ruby Kolesky | June 22, 2020
Leadership
Practicing active listening in online conversations

I think of myself as a leader being placed somewhere on a value based spectrum, with efficiency on one end and empathy on the other.

empathy spectrum from efficiency to empathy

As an individual contributor, I started my career all the way on the efficiency end of the spectrum. I believed that talking to people about their feelings was a waste of time. Turns out, that’s not true at all.

Leaders who value efficiency over empathy tend to sacrifice investing time in relationships with their team members. The result? Ironically, team efficiency is negatively impacted. Why? Because team members who don’t have close relationships with their leader, and one another, are less productive. I recently learned something interesting on the topic of active listening while reading Ron Friedman's Best Place to Work.

Listening doesn't just help you form a bond with someone, it also helps you to become more influential within your organisation.

How listening builds influence at work

Professors at Columbia University's Business School conducted a study in 2012 to determine the best predictor of your influence at work. They wanted to determine whether it was your speaking abilities or your listening abilities that mattered more.

What they learned was that poor listeners tend to lack workplace influence, no matter how good they were at speaking. It is only when high verbal ability is coupled with strong listening skills that employees received high marks for being influential.

Let me share a conversation I had in which I didn't listen very well. A member of our team approached me for feedback on a solution he had designed. He sent me an email outlining his approach.

On that day, like most days, I was busy. I skimmed his email and quickly jotted down some notes. My goal was to respond quickly, so that I could move on to other things. I had also solved a similar problem before. So, I sent a brief, constructive response in which I highlighted my previous similar experience followed by a few bullet points on what I'd change.

He made the changes I suggested, and we never talked about it again. At the time, I saw no problem with how I handled that.

Upon reflection, I doubt my response made him feel good. I did nothing to convey confidence in him, build his self-esteem, or make him feel supported. And, while I can’t be sure if my response hurt our relationship, I am confident that it didn’t help our relationship. The lesson I was teaching him was: If you want to get something right, ask me and I’ll tell you what to do.

Particularly when it comes to a digital back and forth: it’s easy to assume that the principles of active listening don’t apply.

In reality, active listening matters more for online conversations, where room for misinterpretation is far greater when compared with talking in real life.

Applying active listening to online conversations

Here are five things I could have done to listen better during that email exchange.

  1. Completely focus. I could have made sure that I was in a mental space to completely focus on his approach. Instead, I was more focused on my response. In conversation terms, this is the equivalent of selective or even passive listening, as opposed to active listening.
  2. Wait before responding. I could have tried to resist the temptation to respond immediately. Considering this was an email conversation, waiting until the next morning would have been fine.
  3. Ask good questions. Instead of replying to his email, it would have been even better to move the conversation to real life. Regardless, for those cases where I had suggestions, I could have first invited him to flesh out and clarify his thinking. Perhaps he had already thought about what I was going to suggest, and had good reasons for not doing it that way. Asking specific questions also indicates that not only are you listening, you are also comprehending it well enough to want to know more.
  4. Offer Validation. The next thing I could have done was to offer validation by recognising the effort he put in, and agreeing with his approach and thinking. If it turns out I didn't agree with what he was saying, validating that the topic was challenging may have been enough.
  5. Be aware of the shift response. By referencing my previous similar experience what I thought I was doing was assuring him that my response was based on knowledge. Instead I was turning the attention to me. To be a better listener I could have tried to provide a support response, in which I could have given him the attention.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples in online conversations using Joyous.

conversation in joyous about engagement

An example of asking good questions. Joe asked both a specific question and an open ended question. This combination encouraged a much deeper response from Jane.

conversation in joyous about well-being

An example of validation and resisting the urge to respond immediately. By arranging a real life conversation, Joe is allowing Jane an opportunity to talk more about an important subject.