Top Five Ways To Be A Better Listener


Effective listening skills yield great requirements

The better you are at listening, the more people will want to tell you.

If you’ve ever watched The Actor’s Studio, you’ve heard over and over that the most important skill in acting is reflective listening. A marriage counselor will tell you that step one in solving your problems is to listen. Consulting 101 will reiterate the importance of active listening. Presentation trainers stress good listening skills. Dale Carnegie – listening yet again. Sonar technician. There’s a pattern.

Listening is not enough, however – just being a good listener is important, but not sufficient to assure success. Good listening skills are critical to interaction, compromise, partnership, discovery, and almost every significant component of working with others. And requirements management depends upon having the effective listening skills to learn from other people.

Interviewing is the primary requirements gathering process in any project. Getting feedback from users and other stakeholders is important to validating and prioritizing requirements. Communicating with people is critical to success in managing requirements. And listening is at least half of communicating.

With good listening skills, you not only hear better – people say more. Apply these tips to become a better listener.

Top five ways to be a better listener

  1. Use active listening. This is my desert-island* listening skill. When we confirm actively that what we just heard is what the other person just said, we avoid a lot of mistakes – and it encourages that person to tell us more. It also tells our speaker that we are “getting it” and she isn’t wasting her time. This is also known as reflective listening.
  2. Have attentive body language. Smile. Make eye contact (not creepy stalker eye contact). Square your body so that you’re facing whoever your talking with. Don’t fidget or look impatient. Don’t check your watch (if you have an important meeting – tell the person before you start talking that you need to check the time – or that you’ve set an alarm on your phone for five minutes before you have to leave). And whatever you do – don’t answer the phone if someone calls. Nothing sends a stronger “what you are saying is important to me” message than sending your phone to voicemail without checking who the caller is.
  3. Ask questions. Get clarifications to statements. Ask the person why. There are several questioning techniques we’ve talked about before, and they help us with eliciting requirements. They also give feedback to the speaker that we are interested in what they are saying. Anyone who’s lectured or presented to a room of dead fish knows how tough it can be to not get any questions.
  4. 100% focus. Don’t multi-task when you’re listening to someone. No instant-messaging or answering emails. Don’t get distracted by the urgent matter that just came up. We can reschedule the meeting for when we aren’t overwhelmed, or we can take a couple minutes to compose ourselves, focus on the meeting/interview, and relax. We can review our notes about what we want to talk about before we go in – and get our head in the game. If we’re going to talk to Tony for an hour – it’s Tony’s hour.
  5. Use non-verbal attends. Nod your head, validate what you hear with a quick glance to the expert in the room, clap your hands, grab a pen and scrawl down some notes. Any reaction to a particular point made by the person speaking is a non-verbal attend. If you give the person this positive, genuine feedback, they will open up, become more comfortable, and talk more. And therefore tell you more.

*In an earlier post, we talked about our desert-island requirements management skill – communication.

9 thoughts on “Top Five Ways To Be A Better Listener

  1. Active-listening, characterized by paraphrasing what someone just said and playing it back to them, allows you to confirm that the meaning has indeed been captured. I think everyone has been in a situation where two parties believed everything was understood only to find out it was not. Even if you think you completely understand what is being said, rephrase it and play it back – you may be surprised at the amount of miscommunications that actually happen.

    One other tip you may want to consider is to stay open-minded and non-judgemental. Over your career you build up experience which allows you to perform more efficiently. Make sure that you do not allow your past experiences and knowledge to let you think you know what the client wants already. If you do so, you probably are not listening as effectively as you could be.

  2. Hey Marcus,

    Thanks for the explanation of active listening – guess I should have included that.

    Really great point about becoming judgemental and closed minded. If I had a nickel for every time a new client told me about their past experiences with arrogant consultants, well, that would be a lot of nickels.

  3. Maybe we should create a list of words that when spoken make one call for a time-out because they mean different things to everyone.

    My contributions to the list would be: user friendly, flexible, easy-to-use, never and intuitive. You already have, “reliable,” and, “fast.”

  4. Well not only for a BA but in general life too one needs to be a good listener, am sure these points are really useful for every one and i would actually pass on this link to all my friends.

    Going by experience, i had a friend’s friend visit us, he was deeply involved in a conversation with us and all of a sudden his phone rang and leave apart the fact that he did answer the call,he didnt even bother to excuse himself from the conversation or anything, simply answered the phone and kept talking loudly for atleast another 5 minutes.. Trust me there cant be anything more annoying then this..

    After that i didnt even wish to start a conversation with that dude.. i wish he would read this blog some day and gain atleast some listening skills or of the least some social etiquettes…

  5. Hey Vijay, thanks for reading and thanks for the comments – welcome to Tyner Blain! Thanks also very much for the links.

    Imagine if, in the middle of the conversation, your friend of a friend suddenly picked up his phone and called someone else, without asking to be excused. He suddenly decided that it was more important to talk to the other person – how is it different?

    There have been rare times when I knew that I might get a call that I would have to take before a meeting. In those cases, I have apologized to the meeting participants at the beginning of the meeting about the possible call that I would have to take if it came in.

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