Log on to listen

5 min read


This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

The changing nature of communication is a popular topic in professional journals and water-cooler conversations. The use of electronic media — e-mail, texts, instant messaging, discussion boards, social media and more — is applauded or vilified. But everyone agrees on one thing: technology has dramatically changed the business landscape and nature of communication.

In this ongoing dialogue, considerable attention is given to how to communicate online and advice abounds:

  • Keep it short and to the point;
  • Make sure your subject line includes the action required;
  • If you wouldn’t say it to the other person, don’t write it; etc.

But few people are talking about the other side of the communication coin. As we increase our reliance on technology to share information, what are the implications for listening? As we’ve adapted our expression to leverage the range of electronic methods at our disposal, we must also adapt our reception. The act previously known as reading must evolve to a new competency: online listening.

When reading is not really reading

In the workplace, electronic channels now carry the communication that was previously the domain of human-to-human interaction. Talking with others (I mean really talking with them, using vocal cords to speak and cochlea to hear) can be more time-consuming and messy than relying on technology. It can also be more nuanced and subtly layered, carrying messages that transcend words.

Because of this complexity, relationships and results are diminished if we approach electronic communication with the 20th-century skill of mere reading. We can’t expect to get the most from the messages that come via texts, instant messaging, e-mails or discussion boards if we approach them as we would a novel or textbook. Instead, we must engage in something that takes reading to another level. We must develop a new 21st-century competency: online listening.

A 21st-century competency

Online listening leverages many of the skills and behaviors that optimize face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions — with a few twists that allow them to make the most of the electronic environment.

Respect: No one will argue that technology-enabled communication simply doesn’t enjoy the same level of attention as its human-based brethren. It’s regarded as something to slip in among (or concurrent with) other tasks. Online listening demands a different mindset. It demands treating electronic communication more reverently, affording it the same level of respect and focused attention as if it was being delivered verbally.

Consideration: We’ve come to handle technology-based communication on the fly, in a transactional fashion. As a result, we don’t consistently invest the same level of cognitive energy as we would if the other person was on the phone or across the table. Turning reading into online listening requires that we think beyond the characters on the screen to identify with the sender and his or her purposes, intentions or emotions.

Inquiry: In a Snapchat world, is it any wonder that people are in a constant race against the machine to see how quickly messages can be deleted and inboxes emptied? Yet in this rushed and “clear it out” mentality, something is lost. Online listening demands the same level of curiosity as a real conversation, if not a higher level. It requires the investment of energy in surfacing and sharing questions, taking the discussion deeper, and clarifying to ensure genuine understanding.

Sensing: Human interaction, whether in person or over the phone, affords a spectrum of cues and insights that cannot be replicated via technology. As a result, when we look to extract meaning from electronic communication, we must work much harder to read between the bits and bytes. Online listening is about sensing what’s not on the screen, knowing when there’s more to be said and encouraging a continuation of the communication through questioning.

Discerning: One of the most dangerous dimensions of online communication is the tendency to forget that there are real people on the other side of the screen. We’ve all witnessed (or perhaps engaged in) the phenomenon known as e-mail escalation, where emotions intensify and the “CC” field explodes in a way that would likely not happen in real life. Online listening is all about recognizing the limits of the medium; it’s all about identifying when technology ceases to be productive or helpful. It’s all about discerning when it’s time to kick the keyboard aside and pick up the phone or walk down the hallway to realize better results.

For better or worse, technology has evolved the way we share information. But to leverage these advances, we must be prepared to evolve the way we receive electronic communication. Moving from mere reading to the next level — to online listening — has implications for employee engagement, collaboration, customer satisfaction and more. It’s an adaptive strategy that will become a competitive advantage to those who can log on and listen.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.