We all know that active listening is the key to being a great communicator. But when you aren’t face to face, and have to rely on tools like email, chat, and webcams this can get tricky. After all, can you “listen” to an email?

Yes you can, and you know it.

Have you ever read a text message or email, and thought, “Man, she sounds ticked off.” Well she didn’t “sound” anything. What you picked up was tone—word choice, punctuation (or lack thereof) and how she formatted the message (or didn’t, just put it all in CAPS!!!!) tell us a lot about both the message and the messenger.

Why it matters

When we communicate as we have for thousands of years—face to face in the same room—we listen (understand and decipher the message) with more than our just ears. We pick up body language, like crossed arms or fidgeting. Facial expressions can range from smiles of acceptance to rolled eyes. The voice can sound positive and energetic, or we get exasperated sighs and stammering. All of this before we even hear the words the person says. This all goes to interpreting the message so that we can truly understand what the person meant to tell us.

When the telephone came along, we lost the visual component. We had to rely on what we could pick up with our ears. If we didn’t hear it (or didn’t ask questions to clarify) we had to judge intent or mood from the audio cues. This still worked pretty well. When we bothered to do it, that is.

Learning to listen to what we can’t hear

When we work remotely, it’s easy to become very transactional and focused on completing the task or call at hand rather than take the time to ensure understanding. We’ve all had someone tell us they could make that deadline and we believed them, even though they didn’t sound so sure and we really should have checked.

But at least the telephone is an audio tool. It was designed so we could hear. What about as more and more of our communication takes place in writing? Just as listening has a lot of cues beyond just the content, so do emails and Instant Messages.

  • As you read the words, do you get a “gut feeling” that something is wrong?
  • Do you notice a lack of basic politeness? Are nerves getting a bit frayed?
  • Are people shooting one word answers back and forth and not getting anywhere?
  • Are you suddenly getting copied on more correspondence than you should be?

These might be signs of trouble. One of the problems inherent in remote work is that we tend not to pay attention to things that don’t grab our attention. It’s harder to ignore a clear audio signal than it is to be so busy we don’t notice the snippy tone of Bob’s last text message.

So the question is, are you really listening carefully to all your remote team communication, even when it doesn’t involve your ears?

Writing and Managing Email is one of our most popular on demand workshops because it addresses this very issue. Learn to become a better listener and to “hear” your own email communication before you hit “send.”



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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