Wednesday 4 November 2009

Listen: Be a Better Manager/Colleague

We all need a wide range of skills to be successful in the working environment (and outside of it too). Being great with SAS syntax should not be considered the sole measure of success at work. Good developers need to be skilled in (or have an appreciation of) design & architecture, testing, project management and (most importantly) communication. In this post we discuss a key communication skill that is so often lacking in our colleagues and managers: listening.

Whether we're a manager with staff who want to feel they're listened-to, or we're a developer with customers who want to feel they're listened-to, it's easy to think we're good at listening but how can we be sure. Here are a few tips for checking to see if you're a good listener:

1) Be Questioning. Do you ask as many questions as you are asked? When we're in a social setting and are asked "Hi, how are you" our natural response is to say "Fine thanks you, and how are you?". In the business setting you can do the same thing, e.g. "What's our top priority project?", "It's currently WonderWeb, do you see any other similarly high priorities?". A key tip here is to not interrupt while your question is being answered!

2) Be Seen To Act. Do you confirm that you'll act upon what you've been told? If you are questioning then you'll be given feedback; do you assure your listener that you'll act on what you've been told? "That's a great new feature suggestion, Jim. I'll put that into our backlog with a priority of 2. Okay?"

3) Focus. Does your listener feel that they are the most important person in the world to you at the time of your conversation? Maintaining eye contact (not looking over their shoulder) will assure them that you're focused on them.

4) Empathy. Do you put yourself into the shoes of the other person? Try opening yourself to the talker to the point where you can actually feel what they are feeling. Become, in small part, the person you are listening to. Standing in another's shoes and seeing the world through their eyes allows you to listen empathetically. Practice will give you the ability to see a situation simultaneously from multiple points of view.

5) Be Tough. Do you encourage tough questions, or do you try to avoid them being raised? If they're important they'll bubble to the top eventually anyway, so you might as well encourage people to raise their tough questions sooner rather than later. It gives you more time to resolve them.

You can practice your listening skills on a day-to-day basis. I've seen success with the adoption of Rosa Say's Daily 5 Minutes (D5M) working pattern. It's aimed at managers but is equally effective when used amongst peers. In a nutshell, Rosa suggests giving 5 minutes of no-agenda time to at least one member of staff or colleague per day. You can keep a simple log and rotate around the team day-by-day. It's 5 minutes for you to listen to whatever the talker wants to say. As with many successful techniques, it's simple and doesn't sound like it would be of any benefit, but I assure you it can work. Read Rosa's text and give it a try!

Rosa says in a recent blog post:
Managers who are humble are the ones other people will work hard for. A humble manager listens really well. She asks the people reporting to her what they think, and why, and what they would do about things.

You don't need to have all the answers; your job is to find them. And people who can't learn to be humble have a hard time learning where to look for those answers. Sometimes things are right there in front of them, and they don't even see.

Humble managers see with their ears, not with their eyes.
It's almost poetic!