How Hard Is It To Actually Listen Online?

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Listening to the various voices online looks very different from listening to someone sitting across from you. You don’t get visual cues, body language, tone or very much context. Valeria Maltoni has written that “Listening is the most valuable skill nobody teaches.”

I’ve written in the past about the difference between “listen-to-respond” and “listen-to-understand”. Much else has been written and discussed about the importance of active listening, listening without judging, and the like. We concede its importance, but where is it taught? How is it learned? If learned in some way, do we use it, or do we fall back into “listen-to-respond” or, worse, blocking what others have to say because it doesn’t align with what we already know or believe? Do we actually believe that we can’t be wrong or include new information that will clarify or change what we know?


In business, you can play the role of a Subject Matter Expert (SME) online, which is quite helpful for your customers and audience. Doing so builds your reputation and gains recognition for you as someone “with the answers.” Of course, you have to keep working on that all the time, especially if you work in an area that is constantly in flux (which is most professions….). But, as long as you honestly work to deliver true and helpful answers, you’re good.

Anyone who has ever tried to work remotely on a problem knows the importance of listening very, very closely to the issue as explained by the customer or questioner. Despite many of these professionals having troubleshooting steps and scripts to follow, they cannot afford to jump to conclusions when a customer comes to them with a problem to fix. It MIGHT be fixed by the “standard” response, but it might not. As any medical professional will tell you, something that looks like a particular thing may be caused by any number of things….or something completely new! Only a “listen-to-understand” approach will really help get to that answer….and this is MUCH MORE DIFFICULT than bolting to a pat answer.

This is doubly so when listening to customers and your audience. When you’re not actively engaged in fixing a problem, you are encouraging dialogue to come to a greater understanding of their question or comment. Dialogue is more challenging than discussion. I think of discussion as discourse with the goal of arriving at a point of view or solution, probably put forth by someone in the group or thread, that a majority can agree upon. Dialogue may not actually arrive at an agreed upon answer, but the journey through which the dialogue travels can create a deeper understanding of the issue by both (or more…) parties. This deeper understanding has a greater probability of arriving at a unique solution not conceived by any party except as it coalesces during the dialogue. Much more difficult, and possibly takes longer to achieve, but the “skin in the game” of all parties creates buy-in for the objective. Anyone in business realizes that greater buy-in makes it much more likely that you will succeed.

So, how hard is this to do online?

To do well, it is hard.

Is it worth it?

You decide…


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