Communication Skills in Leadership When You Can’t be Face to Face
Worldwide, there are now more than one billion people who primarily work remotely. They work on
the road, in home offices, and in satellite offices. In your own workplace, even in a 9-to-5 setting, think about how challenging it is to get everyone on the team together – you have to work around vacations, sick days, appointments, deadlines, projects, other meetings, and more. Add in multiple locations, business travel, different time zones, and varying work schedules… pretty soon it becomes downright difficult to find meeting times that are convenient for everyone. Fostering communication skills in leadership long-distance like this can be hard.
Nevertheless, this is the reality facing many work teams. As companies expand their presence, perhaps even globally, the skills required for connecting multiply exponentially (even for simple tasks like setting a meeting time!). Developing work-around solutions is essential to be an effective leader.
One of the most obvious choices is to get good at long-distance communication. Obvious, yes. Easy, no. There really isn’t any option that satisfactorily replaces face-to-face connections. The best video conference feeds still look like bad dubbing of Godzilla movies. Skype doesn’t stay in synch either and skips a few beats too often for my liking. Phone only and e-mail communication misses all the nuances of facial expressions, gestures and body language.
Some Tips for Long-Distance Communication Skills in Leadership
So how can we make the most of (not just make do with) telephone conversations and teleconferences? Without seeing others, we have to find others ways to “read” them. We have to develop our own abilities for conveying emotional tone and for focusing our full attention without visual accountability. Here are some tips:
- You cannot multi-task as well as you think you can. Working (or playing games) on your computer translates into misplaced pauses in your verbal responses. Plus chances are good that people can hear your clickety-clacking keyboard, too. Looking at paperwork or attempting to complete deskwork causes you to miss key points in the conversation, rendering you less effective than you need to be. Keeping someone waiting at your desk while you’re on the phone prohibits you from fully engaging in either interaction. No matter how you slice it, doing anything more than fully participating in the phone call is disrespectful. Just don’t do it.
- Instead of multi-tasking, force yourself to focus by taking notes during the phone meeting. Prepare action items that you can summarize neatly at the end of the call. Use your notes to capture questions you can ask at the appropriate point in the call. When needed, use your notes to send an e-mail recap so everyone is “on the same page.”
- Understand that others may be susceptible to the same distractions you are. After all, multi-tasking is normally acceptable and even lauded in business. To avoid catching them unawares, state your intention before asking for feedback. Rather than giving a report and then asking for questions, start by saying “I’m going to review the key points and then I’d like to hear feedback from everyone.” This will help others tune in and stay with you during the most important parts of a teleconference.
- Imagine yourself talking face-to-face with the person on the other end of the phone. When you use the appropriate facial expressions and gestures, it will come through in your voice inflections and tone, too. Your liveliness will improve others’ engagement
- Listen carefully for variations in the speaker’s tone, pace, and volume. Differences can signal an emotional context. By listening for content and feelings, you will pick up on subtle cues and demonstrate your interest in the speaker. If you hear something but aren’t certain there is anything to it, just ask. It would sound like “I thought I heard some hesitance there… What am I missing that I might see face-to-face?
- Paraphrase and ask questions to check your understanding. With people multi-tasking and distracted and feeling the connection is sub-par because it’s via telephone, there is a higher risk for misunderstanding. Restate key points and ask “Did I get that right?” just to be sure you (and others) fully understand.
- The quality of the technology matters. If you’re using VoIP, be sure you have a good microphone. A headset with a good microphone would be even better. If you’re using a cell phone, check for a strong connection, make sure your battery is adequately charged, and avoid background noise (or use mute when you’re not talking). If you are using a telecon or webinar service, send instructions in the planner and a reminder just before the meeting. Then log in early enough to troubleshoot and to greet callers as they enter the meeting. For video conferences, do a sound check to confirm that everyone is positioned in the room where they can be heard as well as seen.
These are just starting point tips. The more you use the phone and other tech tools in place of face-to-face communication, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. At that point, you may become a bit lax in following these guidelines (i.e. when you are tempted to multi-task). Stick to these basics to improve your effectiveness in making every call count.