Find yourself zoning out on Zoom? You’re not alone. One survey of over 2,000 employees found that almost 30 percent of workers reported increased difficulty concentrating since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Some of us find it difficult to focus during meetings even under normal conditions. Add in the stresses of the last year and the distractions of working from home, and giving meetings your full attention can seem near impossible.
Yet engaging—and listening—in meetings is critical for success. Active listening helps you avoid miscommunication (and mistakes), ensure everyone’s on the same page, and learn from your colleagues. Listening also makes for meaningful conversations and relationships.
The key to good listening?
It’s a mix of self-reflection, practical focusing strategies, and a few subtle shifts in perspective. Here are eight tips to do just that in your next meeting.
1. Be aware of your biases.
Our biases—and we all have them—can lead us to gloss over what others are saying. In all your meetings, watch out for these blind spots:
- Confirmation bias: solely listening to information that supports your preexisting beliefs
- Similarity bias: devoting your full attention to individuals who are similar to you
- Closeness-communication bias: tuning out people you’re close to because you assume you know what they’re going to say
2. Identify your assumptions.
Think your next meeting will be a waste of time? Or the agenda has zero to do with your work?
Naturally, making such assumptions means you’re more likely to tune out. Before attending any meeting, take a moment to consider what assumptions you’re making about it, which can prevent you from listening with complete openness and curiosity.
3. Minimize distractions.
Keeping distracting objects out of sight helps to keep them out of mind, so you can devote your full attention to your team.
Research from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin found that having their phones nearby reduced students’ ability to focus and perform well on computer-based tasks. Students who kept their phones in another room, however, had the best performance.
So, whether you’re having a virtual or in-person meeting, put your phone in a completely different room—along with any other attention-grabbing items.
4. Make your contribution count.
Before speaking up in a meeting, try these two things: Consider if what you’re about to say will add value. And if it will, condense your thoughts into a core message, making your communication clear and concise.
Saying more with less not only leads to efficient meetings, it also gives others the floor to share their perspectives.
5. Take notes.
Taking notes during a meeting helps you stay engaged, absorbing what the speaker is saying. Your notes can be brief and simple: Jot down key phrases and list their main points.
It also “doesn’t hurt to re-read these notes afterward to soak in the points,” says Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a Pasadena-based clinical psychologist.
6. Listen to learn.
Most of us listen to respond, formulating our responses while missing the nuances of a speaker’s message: their specific words, nonverbal cues, and emotions.
Listening to learn, however, opens your mind to receive new information and perspectives. Another way to get into this mindset is by listening to understand, actually a key ingredient of empathy.
The next time someone is speaking during a meeting, ask yourself: What’s one thing I can take away from what this person is saying?
7. Take a mental picture.
To fully listen to someone, make a mental model of what they’re saying. Visualize their words almost as though you’re producing a show or painting a picture about their message.
You might also imagine a mind map of their keywords or even a table, depending on what visualizations work best for you.
8. Get confirmation.
Confirming that you actually understand what’s been said ensures you’re on the same page. And if you’ve missed the mark, this gives the speaker the opportunity to clarify their position.
Avoid parroting back the speaker’s words, says Howes. Instead, recap what you’ve heard using your own words.
For example, he notes, if someone says “We’ll need more people on this project because we’re coming close to the deadline,” you reply, “Okay, the timing is tight, so we will need to recruit more help, is that right?”
When you refocus your attention, prioritize thoughtful communication, and listen with complete openness, you just might find that meetings become a valuable addition to your work—versus an obstacle to it.