The digital transformation of the workplace has created greater opportunities for new forms of work arrangements — remote, hybrid, distributed and flexible work.
While in-person meetings create opportunities for conversation, employees in online meetings tend to drop off immediately at the end of the meeting and return to their work in a split-second.
Physically, we may no longer work in the same office, have hallway conversations or grab a quick lunch or coffee together. The spontaneous conversations that occur in a shared physical environment requires deliberate attention with remote work.
Even before the pandemic, research has shown that remote workers feel left out and are less engaged with their work.
They worry that colleagues talk behind their backs, or that their work is considered a lower priority in the eyes of their supervisors. It’s more difficult to interpret body gestures and facial expressions through a computer screen; the lack of informal yet physical nods of approval in the traditional setting can also let our negativity take over and paranoia hinder productivity.
These experiences have an impact on employees’ sense of a shared reality — the perceived commonalities with other people when it comes to feelings, beliefs and concerns about the world. As researchers on listening, we provide some perspectives for managers to build this shared reality through what we call deliberate listening.
Here are three practices to deliberate listening:
Listen to bridge boundaries
The idea of shared reality arises from our fundamental need to bond with other people and to understand the world around us. We communicate in order to share our realities, which also form the basis of our thoughts.
Listening builds bridges between different experiences and perspectives. Co-workers and employees may hesitate to share their struggles at home or their conflict with colleagues if not asked. They often only talk about these experiences via deliberate listening.
Managers can engage in deliberate listening to acknowledge differences, reduce defensiveness and to bridge the gaps between “us and them.” Employees can express themselves more fully, expand their thinking and correct faulty generalizations.
Questions aimed at listening — such as a simple as “How are things at home?” or “What’s on your mind?” — can bridge these gaps and the invisible barriers created by distance.
Listen to affirm
Sharing our inner thoughts strengthens our social connections. People tend to feel more connected if they have the same interpretation of events. American psychologist and researcher E. Tory Higgins introduced the idea that “sharing is believing” — people not only tweak what they say to fit with their communication partner’s attitude, they also subsequently remember the observations they share.
In order to listen well, managers can use external tools, like taking notes, to help them. Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Honeywell, used the technique of dividing a sheet of paper and scribbling notes of what he heard on one side and his thoughts about the matter on the other.
Listeners can also intentionally adjust tones and descriptions to align with the attitude of their conversation partner. Sentences like “I feel the same way” and gestures such as nods build a two-way communication relationship in which interaction partners build on common beliefs and feel closer to each other.
Successful listening results in people feeling they clicked and fuels a desire to maintain this close relationship. That feeling can extend to other colleagues and thereby create a sense of cohesion at work.
Listen to challenge
When others disclose negative emotions, mere listening as support offers minimal help, and can actually perpetuate the frustrating situation.
If the listener validates the negativity, the speaker can brood by immersing in the negativity and replaying the adverse reaction. The magic recipe for constructive listening is attentiveness plus some enlightenment.
Responses that gently challenge the validity of the aggrieved person’s feelings or their appraisal of a perceived problem are most effective for mitigating negativity. Such an approach can motivate people to re-evaluate their initial reaction to the problem and reposition themselves, cognitively and emotionally.
Listening builds shared reality
Listening to others is often undervalued as only passive acceptance. But effective listening as people disclose details of both their professional and personal lives, including hardships and emotions that affect the workplace, takes dedication and skills.
Listening is not passive. It creates a shared reality — one that is crucial for understanding, collaboration and action.
By bridging, affirming and challenging, listeners can build a shared sense of belonging and understanding that shape the realities of our work and world around us. That’s regardless of whether we work in a physical office or online.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Felicity Fu, Simon Fraser University and Jeffrey Yip, Simon Fraser University.
Felicity Fu receives funding from Simon Fraser University.
Jeffrey Yip does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.