Dynamics of Effective Communication in a Virtual World

Leadership | Virtual Working

As you think about your smartphone, where are you within the adoption curve? Are you the person who finds themselves camping outside an Apple Store at a new product launch or do you prefer to keep your current device as long as it’s still functional? For me, I’ve been a late adapter to almost all Apple products through the years. Do you remember when iTunes, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were launched? In their own time and their own way, they were a communication game changer. I’ve been struck by the centrality of the ‘i’ in each of the Apple products. It was almost as if, by using the ‘i’, they were attempting to alter the communication game. The ‘i’ seems destined to have meant “I”. . . as in me, myself, and I.  

I now know that the ‘i’ actually stands for Internet and yet I still feel the strangeness around a device which invites us to communicate but also gently encourage us to put on individual earbuds and listen to my music on my laptop. The issue of course is that communication needs a message, a sender, and at least one recipient. Effective communication includes emotions, cultural situations, appropriate mediums, and interchange through context.

The Dilemma:

The COVID-19 pandemic is limiting most of our business and social communication to a virtual context and setting the stage for misunderstanding and communication that is one-way. Communication today seems to be focused much more on pushing out a message as opposed to pulling in, attracting, or inviting. Even this blog post runs into that danger!

So how do we avoid just pushing out things and calling it “communication”?

In conversations, we can pivot from pushing to pulling. What we need most may be the skill of pulling.

The Solution:

Seek to pull versus push. Keith Johnstone, a British pioneer in improvisational theatre, provides a practical and powerful definition of active listening. Instead of telling improv actors they should be good listeners (which is confusing), we should say: “Be altered by what is said”. Wow – what a clear and simple way to pull instead of push.

In your upcoming virtual meetings, my invitation to you is to embrace this succinct definition of active listening.  

Be altered by what is said.

Be altered by what is said.

As you put this into practice, notice how your focus on being altered by what you hear will shift the meeting in a profound way. A few weeks ago, I presented this active listening definition during a virtual training session with a large telecommunication company. My own understanding was altered by one of the participants, Grzegorz Z:

“If I begin to listen with the intention of being altered by what I hear, then I may change my thinking, perspective, and I will change myself!”

This is truly powerful insight.

What’s Next?

In closing, in the virtual context is it sufficient to “be altered by what is said”? Let me be bold to suggest we might build on the definition to include:

  1. Be altered by How something is said: Listen also for the tone, the inflection, and the words used.
  2. Be altered by Who is saying it: Listen for the person. What are their values, their perspective, and their needs?
  3. Be altered by the Context: Listen for what is being pushed out.

In summary, effective communication within the virtual context requires balancing the pushing out with the pulling in. The means to such a (re)balancing is a conscious listening capability. The key is to be altered by what is said, how it is said, who is saying it, and the context in which it’s happening.


Truly listening and understanding your colleagues in the virtual workplace is just one of many challenges you may be facing. IA offers a suite of virtual training topics that will help you feel comfortable collaborating with your distributed workforce. Explore more about all of our online training options here.

About Michael J. Reidy

Michael has more than 25 years of experience in consulting and responding to the learning needs of adults in the technology, biotech, power, health care and financial services industries. Michael's interest is in adult education, and his belief is that the workplace has become the 'third place' of learning and development for the 21st century. Michael holds a master's degree in Public Administration from the HKS, Harvard University, and is a Board member and owner of Interaction Associates. Among his publications are "Principle and Profit-Corporate Responsibility in Ireland" and "Active Listening in a Virtual World."