Listening Remotely


Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.
– Dean Jackson


Listening is hard. That may sound trite, but with the tasks, questions, problems and countless to-dos distracting our brains, it’s a significant fact. The challenge is that we spend more than half of our day doing it—and often doing it poorly. Imagine your Uncle Bruce performing The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on stage at your local theater. Unless he happens to be an exquisitely trained dancer, people aren’t lining up for tickets. The same goes for your ability to listen; if you’re not doing it well, people are less likely to consult you for information or help.

With all of today’s advancements in communication technology, you might think we’ve come a long way in our ability to communicate with one another. In reality, humans seem to have stagnated in our progress as listeners.

Research indicates that we retain about 25% of what we hear. Studies also show that we’re not getting any better at it; in 1957, the Harvard Business Review noted that same percentage for retention. That’s more than 60 years without improvement.

Technology just can’t change human nature. We remain self-focused, and even with the best intentions, most of us spend more time thinking about how we’d like to respond than truly listening. As difficult as it is to , it is critically important to the success of individuals and organizations. Listening is one of the most essential skills of communication.

Listening fully and actively builds trust, creates stronger working relationships, reduces conflict, enhances efficiency and improves morale for your entire team and organization. When Nora in HR explains the issues she’s having with the new employee database, and you really listen to her and understand her situation, you’re less likely to get upset when the personnel reviews are a week late being uploaded to the database. When you and your associates listen fully and deeply in consultation with a potential new client, your proposal is far more likely to meet their needs – and they’re far more likely to sign on for your services.

Listening is the solution to many problems we face each day. And despite our poor performance as a society thus far, it is possible to improve. Those who actively seek to improve their listening skills and practice the craft have seen as much as 25%–40% improvement within a few months. And once we improve as individuals, we share our improvement with those around us. Leaders who listen create employees that listen. And those employees result in satisfied customers and a successful business. Happy employees, happy customers, happy leaders. Sounds great, right? Time to practice our listening around the water cooler.

The virtual water cooler poses its own challenges. Many of us have fond memories of meeting around the coffee pot in the morning or for that mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Listening and conversing with coworkers, leaders and direct reports provided much-needed opportunities to exchange information and learn important details, whether personal or business. In current remote and hybrid work situations, you may struggle to make those same connections.

Who thought we’d be longing for those weekly team stand ups? But standing around the filing cabinet or taking the office pop-by discussion meant you could share ideas face to face with colleagues without having to navigate the awkwardness and disconnectedness of Zoom chats. For many, we miss those opportunities for person-to-person collaboration that result in the feeling of a true partnership and effective work relations.

Remote and hybrid work are here to stay. Studies show that 74% of professionals expect people to continue to be remote, and 97% of workers want to continue to work remotely, at least partially. And that’s not all bad. Many people report increased job satisfaction since they started working remotely.

Along with that satisfaction comes added responsibility. Of course, remote and hybrid work situations need schedules and self-direction as well as a healthy work-life balance. But the big, often-overlooked skill is the ability to really listen. Many technologies have increased the availability of communications. At the same time, they cause a decrease in the quality of communications and our motivation to listen. In fact, studies show that the third largest complication for remote workers is communication and collaboration. How often have you been behind your screen in a video conference and been tempted to just answer a few emails or research a quick product demo online during the meeting?

With all the potential obstacles, your focus on listening in remote or hybrid settings becomes indispensable.

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the word “remotely” can have two meanings:

  1. from a distance
  2. to a very slight degree

The ability to listen to colleagues, direct reports and customers, and do it well, gives you a critical competitive advantage. While listening from a distance may be unavoidable, you can increase your listening skills so that you are engaged with your speaker, near or far, to the highest degree, no matter how remote.

Bell Leadership has conducted extensive research around a leader’s ability to communicate and influence others, offering insights and proven practices to master the key skills to build communication expertise. When people describe the best leaders they know, they identify exceptional listening and communication skills as predominant traits. Join us for an upcoming program on Advanced Communication where you will learn to listen effectively to what others are trying to tell you, master nonverbal communication and strengthen your presentation skills.