Monday, September 5, 2011

How To (and How Not To) Hear What Someone is Telling You

A few days ago I was standing at a store counter and fell into conversation with a programmer who was feeling on top of the world and wanted to talk about his accomplishments. I had never met this guy. When he asked what I do, I decided to share how much I enjoy working with people and discovering what they want, need,  or perhaps are stuck on with regards to computing and technology. These discoveries can lead to innovative, or more importantly, truly helpful solutions.

I had barely uttered a sentence when the guy enthusiastically told me that he "does that all the time" and launched into a monologue about how he conducts the entire software engineering life-cyle and in particular, knows all about requirements gathering and specification development. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, but tried to tell him that I was talking about something more holistic than "reqs and specs" - I was talking about a bigger picture that involves much deeper work. No such luck - he repeated that yes, yes, he worked with customers regularly. I have no doubt he was sincere in his belief that he interacts effectively with users.

Nonetheless, as he continued to talk a mile a minute it dawned on me that here was a perfect example of missing the boat. His overly assertive interaction style caused me to rapidly lose interest in the conversation and revert to  a surface level discussion - after all it was clear he wasn't really hearing me. He was completely unaware of the dampening effect he was having on his listener. Unless he undergoes a personality change at work, he probably interacts similarly with customers and clients. Will the code he develops be well targeted to address their unique needs? Will it be innovative in a way that is meaningful to them?

If you want to really understand a customer, a client, a student (current or potential) you have to stop talking and listen with more than your ears. This is sometimes called "active listening". A contradiction? Not at all - you can be incredibly active without moving, without talking, without forming premature conclusions or judgements. Active listening is how you find out what is really going on - critical subtext, or something that takes a while to rise to the surface, shows up through words, body language, intonations, and many other clues.

Active listening is a way of being - it is not something you turn on or off "when needed". Interesting and important information doesn't appear on cue or when you will it. Human psychology doesn't work like that. There are many skills and techniques you can develop to facilitate meaningful insights, but the moment you stop listening actively something critical will fly by and you'll never know it.

Test out active listening with a small experiment. The next time you interact with someone you don't know such as the guy behind the deli counter, your hair dresser, the woman whose dog wants to play with your dog at the park:

1. Talk less - let them do more of the talking. You don't have to pull a silent routine, but subtly encourage them to talk while holding back on directing the conversation as much as you can.

2. Resist coming to premature conclusions or drifting off on mental tangents ("What a boring job...why don't they use more modern cash registers?...I wonder how much money s/he makes?...did I remember to lock the car? those receipts really contain dangerous chemicals on them?). Just take it all in.

3. Listen with more than your ears. Be alert to any little voice inside that wants to point something out to you about this person's motivations and perspective. Register the information for later and keep listening.

What do you hear when you actively listen? Based upon your interaction, what have you learned about this person's perceptions and what is important to them?

1 comment:

  1. How true this is, Lisa! I learned a long time ago that active listening is a job in and of itself. The best way I have discovered to do this is to ask the person questions about themselves. Meaningful ones like, "How did you get your education?"
    Basically pulling the plug on me, myself and I and and being available to just H-E-A-R.