In 2020, amidst the global pandemic, we shifted from in-person to almost exclusively remote work environments, swapping the conference table for the screen. Shortly thereafter, we began to collectively experience something new called “Zoom Fatigue” - the utter exhaustion and burnout we feel as a result of countless hours spent using virtual platforms for communication versus face-to-face meetings. Under normal circumstances, staying present and being able to fully commit to listening is difficult. However, in this new reality of digital interaction and mental fatigue, listening has a new set of challenges.
There’s good news. We can make listening easier in our virtual meetings, improving the experience of our participants! Here are a few tips.
1. Listen for content
Most agree that it is much easier to perceive meaning and gain understanding while sitting around the conference table, than it is through our laptop and headset. This is because we tend to rely on body language, shifts in facial expression and listen for tone and inflection to gain greater understanding of the speaker and their message.
In a virtual environment, it’s much harder to process subtle cues and more difficult to feel connected with others when we’re not sharing the same environment. As it turns out, this is not only unsatisfying, but it’s exhausting. We expend a lot of energy trying to interpret meaning from physical and auditory cues, but a virtual environment makes this significantly more challenging. Because we all have different unique listening preferences, we may pick up on very different things from what was said. Differences in interpretation of the same message can be exaggerated in a virtual setting.
Don’t make assumptions based on your perception of body language of other participants or the speaker. Pay intention to what is being said versus who is saying it and how they are speaking. Rather than trying to guess the speaker’s intended meaning, clarify it in the moment on the call while other attendees present, versus after the fact. Others may benefit from the clarification as well.
2. Don’t tap, click or crunch
If you want people to be able to listen to you, avoid making background sounds like tapping on a keyboard, loud swallowing, chewing, or moving things across your desk. Even subtle sounds are caught and amplified through our devices. These sounds are not only distracting and irritating, but they bring about a response in our brains that make it next to impossible not to focus on them. Cognitive energy spent listening to ancillary noises detracts from the listening power that could be applied to your message.
Consider using a headset or external microphone. This can help mute external sounds that would otherwise be picked up by your computer’s built-in microphone. Your listeners will thank you for it. If you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s distracting noises, kindly make them aware of it. A private direct message or chat may take care of it and save them the embarrassment of someone having to say it aloud to the whole group.
3. Increase your bandwidth. Literally and figuratively
Research has identified one of the reasons virtual meetings can be so draining. There are audio limitations. There is a verbal response delay that actually negatively impacts our interpersonal perceptions. Even minor changes to the physical and auditory cues we’ve come to rely on can inhibit our ability to stay focused and energized, even when we are really interested in the subject of the meeting.
This verbal delay is even more pronounced with glitchy technology, and it contributes to brain fatigue. It’s happened to all of us. You can still hear the speaker while the screen has temporarily frozen. Or the delay from others may be significant enough that you wonder if you have frozen, resulting in the awkward question, “Can you hear me? Am I frozen?” Or the equally awkward, “You cut out. Can you repeat that?”
Make sure your internet connection is stable and that you have enough bandwidth to account for all of the users in your household. First try closing unnecessary windows, applications and tabs. If that’s not enough, try relocating your Wi-Fi router closer to your workspace. If that still doesn’t help, you may need to upgrade your plan, or worst case, switch providers to get more bandwidth and more reliable service.
4. Designate a meeting facilitator
Listening in a virtual group setting is tiring because we are missing the organic feedback we rely on in in-person meetings. Our brains have to work harder to manage the limitations of technology. The natural “uh-huhs” and head nods that indicate engagement, understanding and/or agreement can actually be disruptive and distracting in a video conference. The visual cues we use for “turn-taking” get lost through a screen when we are in different places. The natural back-and-forth is lost, leaving us feeling out of sync with no “flow”. The lack of human connection we experience communicating through screens all day is exhausting. Simply stated, virtual meetings don’t provide an adequate reward for the effort it takes to stay engaged.
Assign a virtual meeting producer or facilitator to orchestrate every meeting, even those without a true “leader.” When you are leading the meeting, to help ease the awkwardness and lack of natural flow, make it clear to participants that you’ll be calling on them for their input. Consider giving them a heads up like “I’d like to hear from Jim first, and then Sally, I’d like you to please jump in.” In larger settings, be very clear how you would like participants to signal they have something to share, whether that is through chat or by raising their hand. The Hand Raise may be Zoom’s most under-utilized function. If you pose a question, instruct attendees to “raise their hand” if they have something to say and make it clear you will call on them in order.
Whether we like it or not, virtual meetings are here to stay. At least for now anyway. Which means Zoom Fatigue isn’t going anywhere either. However, we can mitigate it and ultimately improve virtual meetings by making it easier to listen. Pick at least one tip provided and give it a try today. Then let us know what you think.
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