The Art of Listening in Distributed Teams

Someone once told me good communication happens when the message sent and the message received match up as closely as possible. Speaking clearly is a skill we focus on a lot. We work on giving great presentations, explaining concepts clearly and telling engaging stories. But listeners bear the burden of good communication, too. In this article, we’ll share how to effectively communicate with colleagues online and afar, through effective communication and listening skills.

art of listening in distributed teams online communication in distributed teams

When you’re on a distributed team or another team working predominantly online, the things that make a good listener don’t change. You do however have to apply listening skills in slightly different ways to make sure the messages you receive match the intentions of the sender.

[ictt-tweet-inline via=”meistertask”]listeners bear the burden of good communication, too.[/ictt-tweet-inline]

What Good Listening Does

There’s been a lot of research conducted on how we listen in many fields, including psychology, communication, linguistics, anthropology and management. Researchers have identified a lot of different factors that affect how we listen, like memory, attention span, motivation, listening capacity and the context we’re in when we’re trying to listen.

For example, it might be harder to listen to your teammates if you’ve lost motivation at work. And listening is going to take a lot more effort in a noisy lobby than in a quiet office.

But if you can master listening skills, you stand to gain a lot. In fact, studies have found that listening produces three main results:

  • understanding or knowledge gain
  • relationship building
  • a change in our feelings and attitudes

So, if you’re a good listener, you’ll be more tuned into what’s going on, what others need and how others feel, which can help you make better business decisions and be more productive.

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Listening & Online Communication

There are a range of tools and methods we use to communicate with our teams, whether we’re working remotely or are co-located: video, voice calls, email and project management apps. These are just some of the tools distributed teams can use to communicate, and each come with their own set of opportunities and limitations.

Text-only communications like email and chat apps, especially, can make listening more challenging.

“Email does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations,” writes Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Effective Emails. “It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric.”

With text-only online communications, tone can easily be misconstrued. Sherwood says sarcasm can be particularly dangerous (especially if the sender and the recipient don’t know each other well).

But there are also some ways text-only communication can improve listening.

For example: When someone has an accent that’s unfamiliar to us or your first language is your coworker’s second language, it takes more cognitive effort to listen and comprehend. Text communication like chat or emails can help eliminate that cognitive load.

Also, because they can be delayed, text communication can also give the listener extra time to digest ideas, process emotions and respond more thoughtfully.

When working on distributed teams, many teams prioritize video chat because it allows for nonverbal communication like body language and facial expressions, which provide context.

art of listening and communication in distributed teams

Remote work and listening can seem at odds sometimes because the amount of face-to-face contact is much more limited. But just because in-person conversations aren’t always an option doesn’t mean good listening can’t take place.

For example, someone who doesn’t make eye contact while telling you bad news says something completely different than someone who looks you directly in the eye.

Video chat is not always realistic or possible, though. Connections can be unreliable. People might be traveling or unavailable. Tools might not work correctly.

“I think everybody here agrees that the most implausible science-fiction aspect of Star Wars is how smoothly all the Jedi video conferencing works across the galaxy,” notes Jacob Harris, developer for 18F, the digital services agency for the U.S. government.

To make it work, have a range of tools and a plan for how and when to use them. Be aware of the limitations of each online communication method so you can adjust and make the extra effort to fully listen.

Tips for Better Listening

Here’s how you can be a better listener and foster a better environment for listening, whether you work remotely or with a co-located team.

1. Establish rules of responsiveness

When there are clear expectations about communication, you can minimize feelings of people not feeling listened to or their messages being ignored.

“When people are working remotely, it’s important that you define what your rules of responsiveness are for your culture,” writes Michelle LaBrosse, Project Management Professional and founder and CEO of Cheetah Learning. “How quickly are people expected to return an e-mail, an IM or a phone call? What is your protocol when people are out of the office or on vacation?”

LaBrosse says that when people know what to expect, it “lowers the blood pressures on both sides of the customer/company relationship” which can promote better, more careful listening.

2. Schedule distraction-free conversations

This rule applies no matter how you’re communicating. It’s harder to listen if you’re multitasking. It can be easier to fall into this trap of multitasking with online communication because the person on the phone or in your chat conversation can’t see that you’re on your laptop sending an email or checking your smartwatch.

In their book, The Plateau Effect, authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson wrote:

“Your brain is hungry for information, like a golden retriever puppy is hungry to chase a tennis ball. Important information, however, rarely comes as fast as your brain can take it, just as you can never toss the ball fast enough for your puppy. At the dog park, your baby Fido won’t be able to resist if someone else nearby throws a ball…off he bounds, chasing after whatever is moving. And your brain, thirsty for data, with a whole bunch of seemingly spare time on its hands, can’t resist the ping of a text message or the temptation of looking at YouTube videos of cats.”

To be a better listener, do what’s in your power to minimize distractions and keep your focus on the conversation at hand. That means managing notifications and resisting the urge to multitask while you listen.

3. Use emojis

It might sound silly, but emojis help mirror our emotions and provide valuable context for the tone someone means to convey.

See how emojis can change the tone of communication:

art of listening and online communication emoji thumbs up

art of listening and online communication emoji rolling eyes

Without either emoji, you’d have less information to help you interpret the true meaning of what someone is saying.

4. Ask about feelings and reactions

Checking for understanding is an important part of listening.

“When you’ve actively focused on another person’s communication and asked questions to clarify as needed, rephrase what you think they’ve said and ask them if it’s true, whether it’s in person, on Skype, or via email,” writes Jennifer Roberts, marketing and integrations manager for Hubstaff.

Add context by asking how what someone said makes them feel, so you can clarify meaning.

Adrian Tuts, music and audio editor for Tuts+ suggests using phrases such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • Does that sound good to you?
  • Is that going to work?
  • Is that what you were expecting?

5. Read before you respond

This sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes when we’re in a hurry, we respond after we’ve glanced at something someone said only to realize that’s not what the person was asking, or there’s a whole section we forgot to address. Read. Then respond. Otherwise, you could get a reputation for not listening.


No matter your work environment, listening is an important skill to master. It’s not just hearing (or reading) words; good listening means understanding and connecting with what the person intends to communicate and making sure they know you understand them.

Work on honing your listening skills in order to fully connect with others, improve learning and have a keener awareness of how others think and feel.

If you can do that, you’ll help create an environment where the people you work with feel valued and inspired to freely share with you.

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