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Like this article? We recommend Listen: Tune into Audio Information

Listen: Tune into Audio Information

When working with other people in the same physical surroundings, we have an opportunity to talk in person, and through each conversation we can notice the other person's body language. We can get to know one another well enough to know when someone is upset, to see when someone feels passionately about a topic, or to pick up on a cue that now is not the right time to talk. Sometimes we can detect a coworker's mood from how she's dressed or how she walks through the hallway. Even whether someone has his office door open or closed can give us a quick insight into his mood, especially if that door being open or closed is different from "normal." We can take in a lot of information with our eyes.

Now imagine losing all those subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs by communicating with someone only through email, instant messages, and phone—this is the case with many of us who work remotely, either because we telecommute or we work on a virtual team. What kind of cues can we pick up when we're not communicating in the physical presence of the other person?

  • Tone. The tone of someone's speech can give us clues into mood as well as some of the other subtle advantages we normally can detect visually. When you talk to someone in person, you have both audio and visual information, so when you cut down your communication to audio only, you need to tune in faster to what you learn through audio cues alone. It takes learning to listen for those cues—and learning to pick up on them a little bit faster—in order to calibrate your conversation. Even in someone's greeting on a phone call, we can detect whether she has time to chat or she needs to "cut to the chase." Simply saying hello and waiting to hear the other person's response—how she replies and with what wording—can be telling.
  • Speed. The speed of someone's speech can indicate whether he's having a fast-paced or slower-paced day, and we can recalibrate our own speed to be more in tune with the other person's. Rapidity of speech might be something that we'd overlook in person, favoring instead visual cues of what he's wearing or his body language, but speed of speech can be a useful indicator when hearing is the only sense you have available.
  • Background. The background noise behind someone's voice can give you the audio image of her environment. Tune into every noise you can pick up. Why does it matter? Because that surrounding noise represents the other person's distractions, and those distractions matter when you're trying to have a focused conversation. Recently I was talking on the phone with an editor who had kids hollering in the background, and I knew that it was a matter of minutes before our call would be interrupted. That was the right time to cut to the quick and cover only the specific issues we needed to address that day.
  • For most of us, life has reached a tempo that means we're less likely to be seated at a desk and ready for a call without advance notice. Since I've been working as an independent consultant, it's not uncommon for me to be found on a commuter train, walking around downtown Chicago, driving a car, or at an airport—each of these environments shape how well I can hear or how freely I can talk with someone, how much time I might have, and how focused I can be on a call. When I'm going to make a call, I treat the call like a scheduled meeting, planning somewhere that I can talk as well as the time for the call. Listen for background noise, so you can fine-tune your conversation based on that information.

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