Steps to visible communication
Now we are all communicating virtually almost 100% of the time, we need to take it one step further and practise what I have named visible communication.
During the pandemic I have become aware of an increasing number of people receiving and giving feedback around listening. Many don’t feel listened to, or heard. Attentive or effective listening has always been a key leadership skill. But with remote working, when we are all communicating virtually almost 100% of the time, we need to take it one step further and practise what I have named visible communication.
By that I mean you have to be seen to be listening and interacting in greater ways than before. Communication now needs to be much more intentional, where you need to demonstrate interest and engagement regularly and specifically. This is necessary whether you are the listener or the speaker. Ironically, you also have to be heard listening. But audible listening barely makes sense -or does it?
In a personal setting most people can pick up the vibe of a meeting before anyone has spoken. We can sense the energy, urgency and mood whether negative or positive, simply by looking around a group or a room. The ability to reading a room has been identified as a key leadership skill. Online it is more difficult to get a feel for what’s going on, when some participants don’t put on their cameras or poor internet connections interfere with even basic contact.
Back-to-back meetings to camera produce what research from Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), calls Zoom fatigue. This comes from looking at an image of ourselves on the screen, cognitive overload from decoding non-verbal communication, decreased mobility and higher levels of close eye contact.
Just the idea that we have to think about any of this at all, adds to our cognitive overload around one of the most basic business concepts. Interacting with other people.
3 key steps to visible communication
1. Be an effective leader
If this your meeting you will have created an agenda with assigned roles, plus a (short) timeline with follow-up action points. You may even appoint a moderator. You will record it for people who don’t need to be there and get a bonus for flagging up the timing when anyone who is absent should listen to the recording.
For less important meetings have audio-only.
In terms of visible communication, to make people feel they are being listened to, as you know I am a fan of the traffic light check-in at the start of a meeting. This let’s people know you are interested and actively listening to them.
- Red – not feeling so great
- Yellow – so so – could be better
- Green – optimistic and positive
Any reds and yellows in your group require attention. If you have created an open and inclusive culture they will feel comfortable giving reasons either live or in the chat. If not check in on a person privately or have someone on your team do it on your behalf.
2. Be a fully present listener
Attentive listening means being there for the other person by stopping all other activities, putting your phone away, looking at the camera and not at the screen, to stay completely focused on that speaker and what they are saying. In a physical setting, you need to aware of both their verbal and non-verbal communication. With online communication, the second part is challenging when you have to try and their non-verbal communication via a screen, which is one of the most tiring and difficult elements of digital meetings.
It’s important that you periodically check-in with the person so it is clear that you are paying attention. Paraphrasing (audible listening) becomes more significant:
- “Let me re-cap….”
- “Have I understood correctly…?“
This means you have to stay concentrated and catch yourself if you get distracted. It also means you have to pay greater attention to look at the camera and not at their image which allows you to listen for accuracy and with empathy.
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3. Be an engaged speaker
When you are in a room it’s easy to tell when you have lost or confused an audience. They will look bemused or visibly start to multi-task. Online it’s much harder, so you have to ask directly. Build these phrases or something similar into your regular delivery. Once again this is very visible and audible!
- “Everyone with me?”
- “Does that make sense?”
- “What do I need to go over again?”
You can also ask for reactions in the chat or a thumbs up reaction. If there are no responses stop the meeting and ask again, even call on your moderator to repeat the question. Keep your message, short and focused. People are too tired now to hear long and rambling monologues.
Communication with a remote team, whether individually or as a group, has to be more intentional and focused to be successful. It may mean less spontaneous interaction, in which case make a point of replacing that in another way. This means that we need to focus on how we come across. It is not so much about the things we say, but how we say them. It’s important to control the things we can, especially at a time when most of us feel the victims of circumstance so that everyone feels valued and they are heard.
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