About 10 minutes into a video call, your phone pings. 

You give it a quick glance – just a new email. Nothing too important. But while you’re at it, you might as well refresh your inbox to see what else is new. Your mind wanders to your dinner plans. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the camera and fix a loose hair – you really need to get it cut. Then, your mind returns to the call.

Except… wait. What did the person on the other end just say? How did they get onto a new topic so fast? Did they catch you zoning out? Cue the panic.

With so many distractions around us, from our phones to our families, we get it – staying focused is hard. But all of this comes at the expense of listening. On its own, listening is tough, as simple a task as it may seem on the surface. Active listening? Even more so.

On top of that, with COVID-19 making remote work and video conferencing a necessity for many, our wandering minds are fully on display, whether we’re on a team meeting or a discovery call with a new prospect.

Yet active listening can make the difference between closing a sale and losing a sale. It’s all about understanding and internalizing what the other person is trying to express – not just hearing the words they say. It’s empathy, it’s connection and it’s trust. 

So how can we save active listening from becoming a lost art in an age of distraction – and when we’re on camera doing it? Here are our four favourite tips.

Get rid of distractions

Before we tackle anything else, let’s tackle your workspace.

A distraction-free meeting means turning your phone on silent (and preferably, placing it out of reach entirely), closing your inbox and any browser tabs or programs you have running in the background, and even closing your office door.

Basically, anything that could pull your focus away, even for a second, needs to be switched off and out of your hands.

If there’s an interruption you just can’t control or ignore, be upfront about it or excuse yourself for a moment from the conversation to deal with it rather than tuning out. The people on the other end will likely cut you some slack if they know you’re single-handedly dealing with a sick kid at home, for example. Just make sure they know they’re your number one. 

Crawl out of your head

You know those conversations that feel like everyone’s just waiting for their turn to talk? Or the ones where you’re always thinking about what you’re going to say next? Totally normal and natural. Unfortunately, also not productive.

Think of a sales call or a sales meeting like a meditation. These thoughts will inevitably pass through our heads. We need to see them and acknowledge them. And then? We need to move on.

That might mean quickly jotting your thoughts down on a piece of paper. You might snap a rubber band on your wrist to bring you back into the moment (off-camera, of course). The important thing is, you’re noticing when you trail off, and you can bring yourself back on track.

Repeat after me

Now you’re in the moment. It’s time to listen – and respond. 

Your goal here isn’t to follow a script or check off some boxes on a list. It’s to understand how the other person feels by paying attention to what they say – and how they say it. And the best way to know whether you got it right? Ask them.

Whether you’re repeating key points back to them, paraphrasing it down to the core nugget or summarizing a problem in your own words, you’re showing you’re present, that you can empathize with their plight, and that everyone’s on the same page (while giving them a chance to correct you if you’re not). 

Mind your (body) language

Of course, there are other ways to show you’re listening, especially on a video call – and it’s all in your body language.

How? Experts say the following can help you reinforce the fact you’re listening while on camera:

  • Make sure your face is well lit and visible so the other person can see you clearly.
  • Don’t get too close to the camera. Leave enough room for others to see your face and enough of your upper body that your gestures and movements can be seen.
  • Eye contact counts. Position their on-screen image near your camera, and keep your camera at eye-level. This helps you look into the camera (and by extension, at the other person) more naturally and directly.
  • Be liberal with subtle acknowledgements. Slight nods and “mm-hmm”s show you’re still following along.
  • A head tilt goes a long way in showing you’re interested in the conversation.
  • Pay attention to your “listening face” – don’t let it go slack as it may signal that you’re disinterested.
  • A well-timed smile not only demonstrates that you’re listening, but also helps the other person feel more comfortable and confident with you (and it’s a mood-booster, too!) 
  • Lean in when things get interesting – but be careful not to hunch over your laptop.

Think back to the last time you had a conversation where you didn’t check your phone or get lost in your own thoughts. For many of us, it’s a struggle. Bad habits die hard, after all, which is why active listening takes work. You might not get it right the first time, or the second, or the seventh… but keep on trying and soon you won’t even miss the “ping” of your inbox.

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