Listen! Learnings from The Samaritans in a Zoom world.

Listen! Online meetings are here to stay.

Online meetings such as Zoom are here to stay, but many managers are finding it difficult to recreate the ‘in real life’ team spirit needed for people to gel digitally.

So, how can we make sure we stay connected and engaged as screen fatigue sets in? For me, the answer lies with The Samaritans; the original – and completely anonymous – connection builders. And I believe business has a lot to learn from these extraordinary listeners.

Faceless empathy

One of the biggest challenges with meeting technology is that it’s difficult to read and decode facial expressions and body language through the screens. This makes it much harder to connect.

As a listener for The Samaritans, this is just part of life – although we can’t actually see who we’re talking to at all and they can’t see us. Yet somehow, we can connect and empathise deeply. So, what’s the secret?

Living it

I run team building and coaching sessions for SMEs – as well as being a volunteer for the Samaritans. Just as lockdown struck, I was scheduled to run a workshop series for Hattrick, a content marketing agency in Manchester.

Not a digital native, I was petrified. How could I bring the energy, impact and everything I normally deliver and more, into the virtual world?  A complete Zoom rookie, I decided to take the plunge.

Using my best Samaritan communication skills – and working closely with the Hattrick team – I converted the entire well-being and resilience programme into a digital experience. I’m proud to say, it’s been a great success – read MD Malin Cunningham’s blog here.

Listen with intent

Have you ever wondered what makes a person want to call and talk to a complete stranger? They just want someone to listen. That’s all.

So, while business meetings are very different from a distressed call, they share some of the same principles.

In both instances we’re trying to make an impact; engage and empathise – bring people with us. We try to encourage engagement – entice people to contribute and share. Leave the interaction feeling connected.

A Samaritan knows, that the only way to achieve this is by active listening and sticking to some very stringent rules. As we are now faced with only pictures of people on a small screen, this is definitely more difficult, but it is still achievable.  We can see facial expressions if we look for them, we can hear tone of voice if we concentrate on it and we can still be none judgemental and skilful with our questioning.

Trained to listen

As well as professional workshops, I’ve also transferred The Samaritans’ training modules onto Zoom during this extraordinary period. This was introduced cautiously because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter. Although we faced numerous logistical challenges, we brought the training room and all the necessary activities into the virtual world. We had fun, we used breakout rooms, we discussed sensitive issues and we supported each other during this process.

Five top tips to bring people with us in a Zoom world


  • ‘Personality before functionality’. Both are important but the energy in the room comes from us; if we look bored our participants will definitely be bored. Be creative in your preparation, using breakout rooms, shared screens, interactive PowerPoint presentations, Google Jamboards and Docs. Most importantly, lots of energy and personality to keep everyone engaged.
  • Facilitate and control the session. Don’t be afraid to say it. Politely set out the room rules, phone off or silent, no chat unless it is part of the session and lots of energy and activities in the room.
  • Be the best listener and role model in the room. Ask open questions, use the names of people to directly summarise and clarify what they have said. Use positive body language and facial expressions to show we are listening and never be afraid to use silence and let people have their say.
  • Stimulate our audience: schedule brew breaks every 30 minutes to stretch the legs and get the blood flowing. Decide on a mood break every 15 minutes.  Break up the time with something, funny, stimulating or thought provoking.
  • Use break out rooms to build connection, to ensure even the most reserved of people get to speak and feel valued. Speed breakout rooms are a great ice breaker, especially with larger groups. Set these on to automatic for ease.

Sharpen your listening skills


If you’d like to sharpen your listening skills and communicate more effectively online, watch out for a series of three webinars in collaboration with @Jim Harvey from . Jim will demonstrate how to deliver presentations with impact, using powerful and pertinent content.