Can you hear me now?

Covid Anniversary Blog

Perhaps second only to “you’re on mute”, the phrase “can you hear me now?” has become key to COVID-19 pandemic communications. Whether this phrase follows unmuting or is used as the go-to check-in question following the all too many incidents of unstable WIFI connections, the reality is that we all want to be heard.

When I wrote a blog on reflection at a time of COVID-19 a year ago, I spoke about the importance of intentionally taking even short periods of time to listen to ourselves, and to get our bearings in the moment to inform the future.

However, this past year has also demonstrated the importance of not simply listening to the voices in our own heads, but also to those around us.

Who hasn’t heard the tips that regularly get trotted out during communications training, especially when we are working remotely with a screen as a mediating device? Nod, make eye contact, summarise what the person has said. The truth is, if we’re really listening, the other person will know, regardless of whether we have been nodding and providing verbal cues.

I defended my Masters’ Thesis quite some years back in that old world called face-to-face. One of my three panel members held eye contact and stayed connected visibly throughout, one looked down at his notes more than at me, and I genuinely worried that my adviser, the Dean, had fallen asleep. His eyes were nearly shut; he sat very still, he offered no clues that anything I had said was registering. I finished speaking and waited. My panel immediately took turns to offer thoughtful observations and incisive questions, all leading to a successful defense. All three had been listening, and listening carefully. And, at least on the surface, listening differently. I knew they had been listening because of how they responded to what I said.

Sociologist Charles Derber, in his classic 1979 book, The Pursuit of Attention, references two ways we can choose to respond when we are listening to someone else. If we use the ‘shift’ response, we turn the attention back to ourselves, our needs and our priorities. When we use the ‘support’ response, we continue the focus on the other person and their topic. We give them our time; we give them our respect. For example:

“I’m struggling with my workload.” “Yes, I know what you mean. I have three deadlines this week that I’m not sure I can meet.” (shift)

“I’m struggling with my workload.” “Tell me more. What do you need to get done?” (support)

Giving others the space not simply to be heard but to be listened to will open up opportunities for the deep learning and the shared story telling necessary to navigate our way through the post-pandemic challenges that await us.

Perhaps the question should be not “Can you hear me now?” but instead, “Are you listening now – and how?”

Cindy Vallance is Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at Advance HE.

Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

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