Active listening in virtual conversations

As we move towards the eighth month of the pandemic and quarantines in many parts of the world, we would think that by now people have gotten used to virtual meetings; apparently far from it. Still, many people that I meet virtually keep their cameras off during the entire duration of the meeting. While many people have a valid reason for not having a high-speed internet provider in their residences, some are just procrastinating to upgrade their internet connection to enable videoconferencing.

Seeing the other parties in a virtual meeting is of utmost importance during these times, when individuals and businesses are experiencing economic, mental, and psychological hardships. That’s why I argued in my other writings that “empathy, the capability to understand and feel what others are experiencing, should be at the core of all human interactions, especially during these times.” Moreover, “businesses, being the major driver of economic activity, should be at the forefront of practicing and exhibiting empathy toward their employees, customers and other stakeholders.”

Empathy has three levels — listening, trusting, and understanding. Listening is the most important part because through it, trust is developed, and understanding is reached. But listening here is not like listening to a lecture or a concert. What truly will lead to trusting and understanding is active listening.

Just like in face-to-face communication, virtual communication is a two-way process. There is the audience or the other party, and there is a speaker. In virtual conversations or meetings, two or multiple parties play the role of both speaker and listener, vacillating from one role to another.

When you are in the listening role, you give your precious resources to the one speaking to show respect — your time. Active listening requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Unlike in face-to-face meetings, there is the facility to observe body languages and respond to the speaker accordingly.

In virtual conversations, what separates you and the other parties is a two-dimensional screen. Therefore, active listening in virtual conversations is something that everyone should strive to learn and practice.

But first things first is to fix the virtual conversation setup. This involves having the right bandwidth and checking your video, audio, webcam, office scene, and lighting. These are baseline requirements to sustain a meaningful virtual meeting.

The principles of active listening in face-to-face setting is the same as that in virtual, excepts for the nuances of the limited screen interface.

The first principle is pay attention. Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge the message. Don’t look away from the screen frequently to look at your mobile phone. If you have a separate webcam, place it right on top of your screen to approximate the eye contact in the virtual setting. Minimize the distractions if you’re working from home by setting up in a quiet place.

The second principle is to show that you’re listening. Nodding occasionally is one approach, but in the virtual setting, you have to nod in a more conspicuous way so that the speaker can see. You can mirror the body language of the speaker to show interest, like leaning forward if the speaker leans forward. You can also encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and “uh huh.”

The third principle is to provide feedback. Reflect on what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is… ,” and “Sounds like you are saying… ,” are great ways to reflect back. You can also ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say… .” “Is this what you mean?” Summarizing the speaker’s comments periodically is another way. Providing feedback aids in your understanding, which leads to building trust and rapport.

Fourth principle is deferring judgement. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions. This entails keenly observing the speaker if he or she is done talking. Untimely interrupting is a waste of time and frustrates the speaker, which limits full understanding of the message.

Lastly is to respond appropriately. Active listening’s goal is to encourage respect and understanding. Be candid, open and honest in your response, without attacking the speaker or otherwise putting her down. Assert your opinions respectfully.

By becoming a better active listener in virtual conversations, you can improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate, not to mention avoiding conflict and misunderstandings. All of these are requisites for workplace success.


Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the Chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Committee of the Financial executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He is Fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and the Country Representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia (ICTPA). He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University.