For many of us today, our workplace has changed, considerably. Not just the location but the environment. Some of us sit at kitchen tables to work, some of us sit at a table in our bedrooms, and some of us (who are the lucky ones) have an actual office in our homes.
For me, the workplace and the environment has been the same for over 20 years. I am what used to be considered a remote worker or telecommuter, having spent approximately 5 years in a corporate environment as a remote project manager and trainer and 15 years self-employed as a recruiter, training designer and facilitator, working from home. So, for me, the current workplace environment is not new.
I enjoy working from a home office, although as I recall, it took some time for me, and the others in my home, to adjust. And communication was difficult. I recall several communication challenges, not the least of which was the major construction project going on outside my window. The noise was incredible. To communicate with others, over the telephone, or on conference calls, I had to get into my car, drive to a local park and join conference calls on my cell phone. Try following a PowerPoint presentation with no access to Zoom or its equivalent.
Remote work can surface a variety of communication challenges, not just with the medium, but with the words and tone we use when we are communicating over the phone. Even video calls are challenging because it is difficult to read expressions and body language. And it is difficult to listen, particularly when the entire team is on the call. Listening is a skill requiring constant work. How do you ensure active participation on the part of all those receiving the message? How do you ensure they are listening to what is being communicated? What is your measure for ensuring they hear and understand the message?
How we listen.
There are five different types of listening, according to Future Ready Leaadership programs offered by Mohawk College Enterprise (MCE). In these programs, the emphasis is on leaders’ ability to communicate with their teams by being effective listeners. They identify the different types of listening as pretend, selective, active, reflective, and empathetic.
Ever find your mind wandering off topic during conference calls or online meetings? Ever find yourself thinking about what to make for dinner tonight or how best to help your kids with their latest online assignment instead of the business topic being discussed or the issue being raised by a team member? If so, then you are pretend listening. You may be demonstrating the right body language with nodding and murmurs of assent, but your mind is elsewhere. This happens to all of us and, although it should be discouraged, we acknowledge that sometimes we just need to daydream.
Selective listening is disruptive because we are hearing what we want to hear, interpreting what we hear in terms of our opinions, views, and attitudes about the topic rather than taking in the intent of the speaker. Simoni Lawrence, of the Canadian Football League Hamilton Ticats says, “Real communication is not always about what’s said but is always about what’s heard.” The listener may hear specific words and phrases differently than the speaker intended which may lead to misinformation, mistakes, incorrect assumptions, and decisions, and even worse, relationships being negatively affected.
Think about the current phrase ‘defunding the police’. What do we hear when we hear the word defunding? Some of us hear ‘disbanding or dismantling the current policing structure and system’, others hear ‘reducing the police budget’, and still others hear ‘redistributing the police budget to better reflect needs of the community.’
What is the intent of those asking for defunding of the police? What are we hearing from this request?
How we hear.
Active, reflective, and empathetic listening are interactive in nature. These forms of listening require active participation by both the sender and the receiver with feedback between the two parties. Participation is the act of being clear about the message being sent, and the receiver responding correctly and appropriately. Empathetic listening is regarded as the best form as it is about paying attention, listening with insight and compassion.
Even though we may understand and appreciate the concept of empathetic listening, it is difficult to continually apply. The challenge is how we perceive the world. Our perceptions may be colouring our ability to listen effectively. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown tells us these perceptions or lenses through which we view the world “… are soldered to who we are. That’s a challenge if you were raised in the majority culture – white, straight, male, middle class… – and you were likely taught that your perspective is the correct perspective and everyone else needs to adjust their lens.”
The key to empathetic listening is being able to learn from others, being able to adjust our lens by asking for, and thoughtfully considering, their input and feedback. We need to give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, ask questions to clarify our understanding, and discover what they want to see change. With this clarity of communication, we are then able to measure how effectively we respond.
Communication is a dynamic process, one that considers the message not only in terms of content, words, and tone but in how it will be delivered most effectively. With effective communication, no matter our workplace or our environment, we work to connect with others by recognizing the intent of their message, adjusting our perception, and ensuring clarity and comprehension about what is being heard.