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Is Anybody Listening

Virtual Working | Meetings

In online meetings today, people are still listening. But what we hear and understand is often not what the speaker meant. That’s a bummer. Why try to be clear and pleasant in an online meeting if people are just going to mince your words?

I recently led a company meeting where one of the topics was: State of the Learning Industry. Everyone at Interaction Associates (IA) knows that businesses everywhere are facing tough times due to the COVID-19 pandemic–and many small and mid-sized organizations are having to shut their doors. Luckily, and with no small effort, we’ve managed to stay open and active.

But like most business leaders, I can’t predict customer behavior three to six months from now. We have to make educated guesses backed by data. We declare a vision of what we aim to achieve and how we intend to get there. We enroll employees and others in helping develop the plan and realize that future. We stay vigilant and execute with diligence.

I’m cautiously optimistic that our company, IA, will survive and all our employees have jobs at this time next year. This is the information I shared at the meeting.

After the meeting, I received several e-mails and instant messages asking whether there would be lay-offs or job actions within the next one to two months.

Were these people listening to me? Of course they were!

I simply didn’t do a good enough job speaking to their listening.

A better set of questions for anyone that wants to be heard (like me) might be:

  • What are attendees listening for in online meetings?
  • How can I help colleague’s listen for what they need to know and for what we want them to know?

Listening conjures up many images – not talking, waiting your turn, or asking thoughtful questions. However, at the crux of listening involves taking the position of learning. Learning about another’s point of view, perspective, rationale, and position. The Dalai Lama frames it best: “when you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new”.


"When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new."

- The Dalai Lama


As a continuation of our blog series around Taming the Online Meeting Monster, the meeting monster often makes the most striking appearance within the actual meeting. Within the IA Core Meeting Process framework, this happens in the “Lead” phase – where the meeting leader’s job is to guide the conversation and action forward to achieve the intended desired outcomes.

Recall the fictional character Greg? He never listens and can’t seem to agree with anyone, even company leadership. When he doesn’t like a suggestion, he becomes disrespectful and has many reasons why the suggestion is wrong. Greg symbolizes attributes of the Online Meeting Monster™ – those challenging behaviors we’ve all experienced. As a meeting leader, how might you frame the conversation to understand and help someone like Greg?


What are attendees listening for in online meetings?

We each listen for similar and different things. We all listen for threats. We all listen for opportunities. We then listen with a specific filter that is unique to each of us. For example:

  • How would I can fix that?
  • I disagree with that.
  • That’s interesting.
  • I can do better than that.
  • How come I don’t have that?
  • I don’t understand that.
  • I have an aversion to that.
  • I can help with that.
  • I feel sad (angry, scared, pleased) about that.

It’s useful to know how we automatically listen. We can then make a choice to listen a bit differently. Instead of “How come I don’t have that?”, we can listen for a moment with curiosity about the speaker’s meaning.


How we can help our colleagues listen for what they need to know and for what we want them to know?

  1. Don’t take it personally when people are paying attention to their automatic reaction and not to you. It’s a rare person who can listen to someone else, particularly in online meetings, for more than 30 seconds before joining another conversation in their own head (or another screen).

  2. Let people know where you are going. For example: “I want to you tell you some things that will be useful to you. I also want for you to understand what I’m saying, to ask questions, and to share your opinions. If we can achieve that, it will be a win-win for all of us.”

  3. Make a clear and direct request. For example: “please let me know if I’m not covering the things that matter most to you.”

  4. Check for understanding and agreement on your request. People will listen more closely to what you want them to listen for if you build an agreement to share responsibility for the conversation.

If you want to learn more about Listening and Speaking more effectively in online meetings, consider one of these Action Accelerator learning experiences for your organization:

How to Really Listen and Understand People
Techniques for hearing and understanding people more accurately, appreciating alternative points of view, and encouraging honest communication

How to Present Online with Confidence
Techniques to engage and command the attention of listeners by using compelling messages, attractive visuals, and vocal variety


Did you miss a blog in the Tame the Online Meeting Monster™ series? Find the published blogs below:

Part 1: Meet the Online Meeting Monster™
This blog will introduce the monster and highlight key areas to look out for in your online meeting. We’ll be tackling each topic in the coming weeks.

Part 2: Why Are We Meeting?
Start your meeting off on the right foot by preparing yourself and attendees. In this blog we will provide you the tools to do this seamlessly.

Part 4: Did You Write that Down?
A successful meeting should end with clear next steps and action items. In this blog we give tips on how to properly take meeting notes.

Part 5: Are We Done with This Meeting?
Tired of ending meetings more confused than when you started? Learn three simple practices that will help you end your meetings feeling confident.

About Barry Rosen

The CEO of Interaction Associates, Barry consults with company leaders on how to empower people and teams to work across functions and other boundaries to get important things done. He leads the assembly of IA's collaboration tools and learning content, including programs on facilitative leadership, inclusive teams, and task-focused group facilitation.