Active listening is about more than gaining understanding. Active listening is about giving. Giving assurance that you understand someone’s needs. Giving confidence that you will address those needs. Giving feedback and acknowledgment that someone’s input is valuable. If you haven’t tried active listening, you may think it is a passive, receptive activity. Here are ten active listening skills that will help you, your customers and your team.
What is Active Listening?
McGraw-Hill’s accurate yet insufficient definition of active listening is “Giving undivided attention to a speaker in a genuine effort to understand the speaker’s point of view.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t tell you why you give undivided attention, and it doesn’t tell you how. And active listening is much more that paying attention really well. That implies a one-directional communication. Active listening is bidirectional. This definition doesn’t tell you what you’re giving to the speaker and that’s the most important part.
Why Practice Active Listening Skills?
There are plenty of generic reasons to be an active listener. Dale Carnegie swears that active listening is the key to making a great first impression (he’s right). Dr. John Gray promises to improve your cross-gender relationships with active listening that gets to the heart of the unimaginable motivations of the opposite sex [tongue in cheek].
As a business analyst or product manager, you have some very specific goals and challenges. Joy at Seilevel recently wrote about the challenge of convincing people that documenting requirements is important. She looks at the motivation of the naysayers, and recognizes that the reasons may not be logical, or they may not have the data. This is a great example of the kinds of situations, beyond gathering requirements, where active listening skills can help.
The Center for Rural Studies [yeah, I know, it is odd] provides a great list of ten active listening skills. We’re re-purposing that list here to
- Make you more successful.
- Make your products better.
- Make your customers happier.
Ten Active Listening Skills
- Acknowledging. You send cues to the speaker that acknowledge that you are hearing them. You have to demonstrate that you understand the ideas. Make eye contact and dilate your pupils, raise your eyebrows, nod your head. This is more than just acknowledging that you here the words (and be aware of different cues in different cultures). You have to acknowledge the ideas to be effective. When you don’t understand something, you can make the “I don’t get it” face.
- Restating. The best way to overcome missed signals in the non-verbal attends that represent acknowledgment is by restating what you just heard. The key to restatement is not reiteration, but paraphrasing. You demonstrate that you’ve absorbed a concept by rewording it. If you missed a key concept, your reworded restatement should make it obvious to the speaker that you missed the idea. In an ideal world, she will be practicing active listening skills too – and will restate your restatement, providing another means for you to grasp the idea.
- Reflecting. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Subliminal imitation is sort of what reflecting does. You pick up on the body language and emotions of the speaker, and reflect them back at her. Several “how to get ahead” management books will tell you to emulate your boss. This is because we are all pre-wired for a little bit of xenophobia. We tend to like people who are “like us.” More importantly – by demonstrating that you are developing the same reactions as the speaker, you are affirming that you have reached the same understanding.
- Interpreting. Ah, the psychiatrist’s trick. “I see from your uncontrollable twitch that this has upset you. Tell me why…” This is generally focused on being empathetic, and encouraging people to talk more. However, this is also where you can ask for clarifications, to make sure you understand what your speaker means. “Are you saying you need ‘drag and drop’ because you need an easy to use interface, or because people will be using a tablet pc with no keyboard?
- Summarizing. When you ask a good open ended question, you will get a relatively long response. When applying active listening skills to requirements gathering, you often want to let your speaker go off-topic a little bit, as it helps identify other requirements. Make notes of those other topics for followup, then summarize the parts of the answer that addressed your initial question. You’re reinforcing for the speaker that you understood why they said what they said, and that you didn’t muddy the waters with the other information they gave you.
- Probing. People often summarize in order to communicate effectively. Developers will use design patterns to allow them to describe detailed software implementations in a word or two. People in general will use symbols as replacements for compound ideas. Ask a clarifying question or two to assure the speaker (and yourself) that you understood what they intended you to understand. This can also help you with credibility with the speaker, as it demonstrates some knowledge of or comfort in their domain.
- Giving Feedback. By sharing your opinions about particular ideas, you create a collaborative bond with the speaker. You should focus on affirmation of their insights or ideas, instead of criticisms. If you tell someone that their question is stupid, you encourage them to shut down and shut up. Listen to speakers or panelists in a Q&A session – they regularly start their answer with “That’s a great question.” The really good ones will say “That’s a great question, because…” Without the because, the feedback can start to sound like a pre-programmed platitude. Quickly snap off half a dozen “Great Question. Here’s my answer.” answers without the rationalization, and people will tune it out as noise. If you’re struggling for responses, use anecdotes. “That’s a great question, I had a client who never asked it – and here’s how the disaster unfolded…”
- Supporting. Validation of the speaker’s ideas and concerns is important. By supporting their worries as being valid, and ultimately resolving those worries, you create loyal customers. Dell recently launched their Idea Storm website to elicit exactly this kind of feedback (among others). If they add their voices to the mix, providing support for the ideas that people present, they will get more and better ideas. If they follow-up, they can demonstrate a clear cause-and-effect for their customers. “You said it. We did it.” That would generate some loyalty!
- Checking Perceptions. When you’re actively listening to someone, in addition to getting data, you are forming impressions and perceptions. You need to check the validity of those perceptions with the speaker. When gathering requirements, this often leads to identification of the true requirements, and even implicit requirements. You’re also letting the speaker know that you “get it.” This is a great opportunity to double up on the supporting and feedback active listening skills with responses like “I think that is a great requirement, because it will prevent incorrect orders from being shipped, and that will reduce field-servicing costs. Or was there a different benefit you had in mind?”
- Being Quiet. Interviewers use this technique all the time. Silence can make people uncomfortable, so they tend to fill the void – the only way they can, by talking more. While this is effective for confrontational interviews, there are more positive and enabling reason to do be quite. First, you need to temper your exuberance to provide feedback, support and summaries, so that you appear to be listening and not talking. You’re meeting with someone so that you can understand their perspective – not so that they can understand yours. Second, you want to give people time to think. If you are creating a “take all the time you need,” positive, supporting silence, they will use that time effectively. The attends and emotional affirmations you’re providing are what make it supporting and not interrogative.
- [Bonus] Extension. This is a variation on the restating technique. Many people you interview will be providing you with data from a discrete perspective. When gathering requirements, you have to find a way to abstract that information into market requirements. People also often talk in terms of their existing tools and processes. You may be getting great information, but it may be overwhelmed in implementation details, either about how they do their job, or how they envision the future system to be. A great way to validate that you’re generalizing the salient parts of their ideas is to extend the ideas. “I need to be able to sort the accounts receivable list by name, even though Joan sorts them by outstanding amount” can be combined with other requirements and extended to “Each user shall be able to organize outputs by field in the UI.” And you just discovered that Joan is a stakeholder who uses the same functionality for a completely different purpose.
Active listening skills are critical to communication, and more importantly, collaboration. Requirements gathering – for product managers AND business analysts, is the essence of collaboration. It isn’t input only. Use your active listening skills to make the conversation bi-directional, and you will get better information. You’ll also have better products, and happier customers.