How to Be a Good Listener in Virtual Gatherings

Five ways to stay present and connected while physically distancing.

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Posted in , May 5, 2020

How to video conference

One of the biggest cultural sacrifices we have had to make during the physical isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is the loss of in-person, real life, same-room conversations. In our current normal, birthday celebrations, holidays, professional meetings and even memorial services are taking place on video chat. 

Being an engaged and thoughtful listener was a challenge before the current crisis. Now, with everyone joining in conversations with varying levels of distraction or background noise, not to mention comfort with new technologies, it is more important than ever to cultivate good listening habits.

Here are five tips to help you stay connected and present while on video chats:

1. Bring Your Whole Self to the Conversation
Just like when you are talking with someone in person, it is evident when you are “there, but not there.” Try to either be in a quiet, private place where you can focus all your attention on the conversation or be explicit about it if you need to multitask while chatting. Some of my best virtual catch-ups have taken place while I’ve prepared dinner—and my friends know that’s what I’m doing.

2. Give Non-Verbal Cues
In a live conversation, we often make “listening sounds” like “mm hmm” or “yep” to show that we’re plugged in, so to speak. In virtual environments, such niceties can backfire—instead of indicating to the speaker that you are engaged in what they are saying, your polite reinforcements can actually briefly interrupt the sound, which makes it harder to understand and focus. Use your body language—raised eyebrows, visible smiles, thumbs-up or head nods—to respond in real time with active listening.

3. Signal When You’re Done Talking
I think of video chatting as being similar to talking on a walkie-talkie. While you don’t have to identify yourself every time you speak, especially in a social setting, it is helpful to offer a subtle “over and out” when you’ve finished talking and are ready to listen to someone else. You can nod, or you can ask a question that signals that it’s another person’s turn to speak.

4. Be Honest
If someone has a spotty connection, or if they are too far away from the microphone or inadvertently off-screen, I've found it’s best to gently point that out to them rather than pretending you can hear and understand them. Saying, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch the last thing you said” is helpful both for keeping everyone on the same page, and it also shows the speaker that you want and are trying to listen attentively. 

5. Acknowledge the Challenges
As with all aspects of living with authentic positivity, it’s important and helpful to acknowledge the challenging aspects of virtual conversation even as we celebrate the opportunities it affords us to stay connected. Get to know what works best for you, like if you fade after 30 minutes on a virtual chat, or if you prefer to have a craft project or warm drink on hand while you talk. Remember that video chats aren’t supposed to feel “normal.” But when we show up to listen, we can feel the comforts of connection with loved ones near and far.

How do you listen best—and feel most heard—in video gatherings?

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