Tuesday 11 August 2015

Good Communicators are Good Listeners

A couple of weeks back I wrote how great developers have skills beyond syntax and design patterns. One of those key skills is communication.

Communication is a two-way operation, and the art of listening is oft overlooked, so I thought I'd offer some notes on the subject here. Specifically, what is commonly known as "active listening".

There is a difference between simply hearing someone’s words and engaging & understanding what someone is saying. If we want to be an active listener, it isn't enough to just hear what someone is saying. Active listening means i) we are focused on what is being said, and ii) we are open to the speaker's point of view.

For the first part, paying attention, we should be listening and trying to understand what this means. There are different means of doing this, which suit different people. For me, I do this better by taking notes (plus, writing down what people say makes them feel heard and important!) and by using follow-up statements like:

  • Can I try to repeat back what you said, in my own words?...
  • So, another way of saying that is ..... Is that correct?

Each of these makes sure we understood the person's point of view and gives them confidence that we are doing so.

The second part of active listening is being receptive to other peoples' thoughts and ideas. Sometimes this can be really difficult for developers, or other smart people, because many times they are 5 steps ahead of everyone else! However, interrupting or assuming what someone else is going to say can hinder us from hearing new ideas.

It is very important to make people feel heard (not just listening to their words, but understanding their points).  To be more receptive to others here are some tips:

Don't interrupt.  This one can be hard, when we already know the answer to something, or have thought through the solution or path already. However, allowing people to say their thoughts shows respect and consideration for others.

Don't assume what they are going to say. We might be right, but we could also be wrong, and either way it prevents the other person from voicing their ideas. Problem solving, brainstorming, and planning are all things that can be better done collaboratively, and that means each person should have a chance to contribute.

Do ask clarifying questions. Try to understand the "why" behind what they are suggesting; even if the "how" is wrong, their motivations may be sound. Getting to the root of things by asking questions makes the other people feel heard out, ensures the roots of issues get addressed, and can lead to more productive conversations.

Acknowledge their view as important. They probably wouldn't have said anything if it didn't mean something to them. Therefore acknowledging their point, or motivation behind their point, makes the other person feel recognised and their concerns addressed. A simple statement like "that is a good thing to consider" or "thanks for bringing that up, we should definitely note it" is all that is needed; even if you plan to refute that view or disagree with it.

Wait for their response. If we ask someone a question show that we want to hear the answer by waiting for him or her to respond. Some people (especially technical folks) tend to like to think things through before they verbalise them. Other people are more comfortable when they are talking. If you fall into the latter camp, make sure that if you are talking to someone who likes to think through their reply, that you don’t keep talking and wait for their answer. Ask the question, pause and wait.

Notice their body language. Not all communication is said out loud, so take a few moments and try to observe how the person is reacting to what is transpiring. Are they guarded? Visibly upset or shaken? Are they excited and happy, nodding along to the statements? These are all clues that can help us understand what is really going on under the covers. Learning to pay attention to these can help us change our tone, or adjust our approach.

Listening (and contemplation) is such an important element of communication. We should always remember that we have two ears yet only one mouth; we should use them in proportion!