In 2015, Accenture conducted a study that revealed that 80% of the global professionalsmultitask on conference calls, juggling work emails, instant messaging, personal emails, and social media, and reading news and entertainment. Those who did listen actively on calls were more likely to either need something from the call or were required to lead, participate in, or follow up on the matter discussed.

All this multitasking comes at a cost. Over 36% of these professionals also reported that distractions from multitasking affected their focus and prevented them from doing their best, impacting team relationships and resulting in lower-quality work.

Where does that leave you, if you are on the other side of the (virtual) table from a distracted listener? Frustrated, misheard, and misunderstood? Unable to collaborate effectively and meet crucial deadlines? While this might seem to be the obvious situation you’d face, a few smart tactics might help you get through to your peers without antagonism on either side.

Adjust for different communication styles

Everyone processes information differently. For instance, some people are okay with listening during meetings but would need to get written instructions so that they can work according to them. Others cannot process speech as well as they can understand a few simple graphs. Some people are more attentive to hard numbers, while others prefer anecdotes. Still others prefer face-to-face conversations over digital meetings. If you are having a hard time getting through to somebody, try to identify what mode of communication works best for them and see if you could accommodate that into the discussion.

Demonstrate empathetic listening

The key to empathetic listening, according to executive coach and CEO Sabina Nawaz, is to think about your audience and understand their point of view. Try to make them see that the discussion could have something in it for them, too.

To do this, engage in conversation: “What do you think of this new idea?” or “Have you seen this kind of code before?” or “In what situation do you think this will fail?”

Try taking notes when your colleagues are offering their thoughts. Validate their points afterwards and integrate it into the conversation. Increase their stakes in the conversation by acknowledging and including their inputs: “Interesting point, Jack, it really strengthens the strategy document.” Or “Those are some insights, Grace, that I wouldn’t get anywhere else.” Or “Great ideas, Ali! Could you pen them down so we can share them with the wider group?”

Offer help

Sometimes, your ‘bad’ listener is not intentionally tuning you out; they might be struggling with something unavoidable. Address the issue with compassion and see how you can help.

For instance, someone who seems distracted by the phone could be worried about a call for help from home or another colleague. You could address it by asking if they need a minute or two to call and resolve the family crisis, so that they can come back to the meeting and offer you their undivided attention. Or if a distracted teammate confesses to having a tough deadline coming up, ask how you can help streamline the workload.

Follow up after the discussion

Sometimes, even the best listeners forget what was discussed, purely because they have too much on their minds. It could be back-to-back meetings or other project deadlines or pressing family commitments. Follow up your discussion with an email that covers the key points of the meeting, outlines the next steps, and assigns responsibility and timelines for each of these steps. This will make sure everyone has an opportunity to jog their memory and be on the same page, even if they have had other matters to deal with in the interim.

Emphasize your message

Sometimes, we are aware of how important the discussion is, but we fail to overstate it. When dealing with a less engaged listener, emphasizing the point is key to a successful interaction. For instance:

  • Start on a strong note to perk up attention: “This is an important update connected to our latest project.”
  • Set the agenda so that listeners don’t feel lost: “I will set the context, then share the roadmap, and then our client’s first round of feedback.”
  • Highlight your peer’s role as an active listener: “After each point, I’ll wait for your thoughts.”
  • Clearly define the response you need from the listener: “Could you review each of my ideas and share your final preference at the end?”
  • Reiterate your point and explain why: “This was flagged by the client, so I’ll go over it once again.”

And finally, reflect and evolve

They say it takes two hands to clap, and for good reason. Sometimes, circumstances show that someone branded as a ‘bad’ listener was overwhelmed with information, drowning under too many expectations, or could not relate to your content or your communication style. These are opportunities to spot and close the gaps in your own management and communication skills. By doing so, you’ll see conversations once fraught with distractions and negativity evolve into focused and fruitful interactions.

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