Ten Supercharged Active Listening Skills To Make You More Successful

attentive labrador puppy
[Update: Welcome carnival readers (and more and more and more), thanks for the visit, we hope you like this and the other articles here and stick around to share with the community! Scott]

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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…”
  8. 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!
  9. 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?”
  10. 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.
  11. [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.

Conclusion

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.

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This article was published on Thursday, March 15th, 2007 at 8:00 pm and is filed under Communication, Consulting, Lists, Requirements, Requirements gathering.
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9 Comments

  1. Oh – and that’s Scout in the photo from about a year ago. Sometimes he practices these listening skills, but usually he’s chewing a stick or a dishtowel.

  2. On a related note – if this article helps with listening, imagine how much easier it would be for your listeners if you knew how to speak. Check out Mike’s article, also from yesterday.

  3. Good posting Scott! Active listening is a core skill for any manager. One of the acronyms I’ve seen that’s helpful is W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking?)

  4. Thanks Malcolm for reading and commenting!

    I LOVE the acronym. I’m typing it again to help me remember it. WAIT – why am I talking.

    Awesome.

  5. As a Product Manager with a background in Psychology (two degrees and a partner who is a therapist), I have had a fair amount (read: exhaustive) of experience with active listening and can attest that practicing the techniques listed can go a long way toward making communication better.

    Trying to do all of them at once can be tiring, so I would recommend that you pick a few (1-4) and try them out. Get a feel for how they work with your audience and what you get out of them. Truth be told, some people respond well to some of the techniques better than others. Reflecting and Summarizing can sound to some people as if you are being repetitive or patronizing.

    My favorites are Acknowledging and Being Quiet. You’d be surprised how much information you can glean when you let the other person have some space in the conversation and confirm to them that you are hearing them.

  6. Hey Ivan,

    Thanks very much for chiming in! Great to have someone with exhaustive experience validate the list for our readers. I really appreciate it – and thanks for reading too.

    Good points about the challenges of doing it all at once, and I love your suggested favorites. I find that I do a lot of summarizing, restating, and probing. And probably not enough of being quiet. I need to take Malcolm’s advice to heart and WAIT.

    Thanks again,
    Scott

  7. Very helpful and important to bring this to greater attention. These strategies work very well in business and in social relationships and I highly recommend them. One question for you, Tyner: I recently had some unusual reactions to ‘restating’ and ‘summarizing’ from a friend of mine. When I use those two methods in listening to them, they often become agitated and will even argue with me, saying things like, ‘Why are you just repeating what I just said?’ Of course, I haven’t been repeating word for word, but trying to summarize, etc. But it irritates them where it doesn’t usually irritate people. Can you offer some insight into that reaction.

  8. Thanks very much, Corinne. I’ve definitely seen the same reaction in people before. I’ve been in meetings where the speaker restates or summarizes the points made by one of the other attendees, and the attendees get annoyed. Sometimes not just the original speaker, but other attendees. I believe that the annoyance was proportional to the amount of reiteration.

    In other words, when the “active listener” repeated a lot of the phrases the speaker (attendee) used or summarized using identical, uncommon words, the speaker would get annoyed.

    There are three things that I do to minimize this affect.

    First, I play “thesaurus guy” and try and not re-use any precise or uncommon words. By substituting alternative words, I can demonstrate understanding without regurgitating.

    Second, I try and focus more on summarizing – or re-articulating the concepts, at a general level. Re-characterizing someone’s point at a more general level that the one they made it at helps both to clarify my understanding, and to give satisfaction to the speaker that I understood what she said. By attempting to generalize, it feels more like evaluation and extension of the concept than merely repetition.

    Third, I sometimes try and use analogies. The best analogies describe the uncommon in terms of the familiar. This is similar to the second technique, although I am “testing” the concept by moving laterally instead of vertically.

    Let us know if these techniques work for you!

  9. I taught a course called “Presentation Skills for Executives” several years back that included a segment on Active Listening. Over the years since then I have informally evaluated the causal effect using these skills has on careers. Your blog entry and the above comments allude to the results. Those that learn and hone their ability to actively listen are far more successful than those that do not.

    There are some obvious objective reasons – the listener gains more insight, there are fewer miscommunications, details are clarified sooner, etc.

    However, from my own personal experience I believe the underlying reason active listeners are more successful is because the recipient of your attention – a client, a peer, your boss, your spouse – FEELS like you care about their needs. They then respond more positively to you and your ideas. Happy clients leads to more successful careers.

    Thanks for summarizing the why’s and how’s to being an active listener!

9 Trackbacks

  1. By The Dragon Slayer's Guide to Life on March 23, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Personal Development Carnival…

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  3. [...] Scott Sehlhorst presents Ten Supercharged Active Listening Skills To Make You More Successful posted at Tyner Blain, saying, “Active listening is a critical skill not just for business but for parenting. As a WAHP, I have to juggle conference calls with “Please let me….”s. Kill two birds with one stone with this one.” [...]

  4. [...] Scott Sehlhorst presents Ten Supercharged Active Listening Skills To Make You More Successful posted at Tyner Blain. [...]

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  6. By Eric Portelance on July 14, 2010 at 2:59 am

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  7. Three Kinds Of Active Listening…

    I'm All Ears The three fundamental skills of active listening are parroting, paraphrasing, and feeling feedback. Clinical psychologists are trained to use these techniques to get their patients talking. Parroting Never use this technique twice in a…

  8. [...] asking people what they want and confirming that you heard what they said is also not enough.  Active listening is important, but to capture great requirements, you also have to provoke thought about why someone is [...]

  9. By AfriKDiasporas on December 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm

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