If you listed all the skills a project manager or team leader needs to have in today's virtual, online world, odds are most of us would miss one that is absolutely critical – and has been so since long before the birth of computers. That's the ability to listen effectively.
If you stop to think about the ways we communicate virtually, many of them seem to have little to do with our ears. We might go days without speaking to a team member, communicating only by email, or text message, or leaving messages on a team blog or social networking site. When we do talk with them, it might be on a conference call or web meeting and they may only say a few words. Why, then, is listening so crucial?
If you define listening as just hearing the words someone says, you're missing out on critical information that leaders of all stripes need to help support, coach and lead people in their daily work. If we broaden the definition of listening to include all the ways we take in information, process and understand it, you can see why these skills matter so much.
You have to "listen" to your email. Okay, how do you listen to the written word? Well, if you have ever gotten a message from someone and said, "they're in a really bad mood today", you have listened well. You have to take the time to really process the information. Not just what the person says, but pay attention to the tone, word choice and the like. Read responses and "listen" for signs of tension, misunderstanding or frustration that might lead to real problems later on.
Conference calls are for communicating, not just data transfer. One of the obvious ways we listen to each other virtually is on conference calls or webmeetings. Yet, too often we use them as one-way broadcasts.
Without input from others you can't tell if the message was received properly, if it was understood or how people are reacting to it. You can't listen if people don't have the chance to say something. Use frequent check-ins (instead of asking them to hold all their questions or comments for 45 minutes until you're done) and ask open ended questions "what thoughts do you have about _____" rather than, "any questions?"
Don't let time pressure clog your ears. Scuba divers, pilots and mountain climbers all understand that as the air pressure increases or decreases, our ears pound and we can't hear very well (it can also gives us a pounding headache which gets in the way). When we are pressed for time, we don't hear as well as we should otherwise.
So we need to take the time to listen for unspoken questions, frustration or weariness. When you ask that person on the other end of the line if they'll make that deadline, and you hear silence followed by a terse "of course", don't just rush to the next action item. Make sure what you heard was really agreement and not a desire to avoid talk about important things.
This problem is particularly acute in "Agile" environments where it often seems the point is to keep the meetings as short as possible. Don't short-cut opportunities to listen to your people.
Whether it's on the phone, in email, or on Facebook, we have plenty of opportunities to take in information, process it, and understand what's happening with our teams. We'd better make sure we are really listening.