Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Active listening

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One of the first unusual (to me) things that I noticed from the trainers at ThoughtWorks University was that when they were listening to participants they would often ask questions and re-frame the participants’ comments. Intrigued and impressed by this I spoke to one of the trainers and was told that they were engaging in ‘active listening’. Wikipedia defines the term as follows:

Active listening is an intent “listening for meaning” in which the listener checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood. The goal of active listening is to improve mutual understanding.

I believe this is a very useful skill to acquire, and I certainly hope to improve my ability in this area.

It reminded me of the 5th Habit that Steven Covey speaks of in his book titled ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Certainly easier said than done…but then again we do have two ears and only one mouth so perhaps there is a good reason for that!

Browsing the ThoughtWorks Blogs yesterday evening I came across a link to an interesting site which spoke of the ‘Eight barriers to effective listening’. I found this particularly useful as not only does it point some of the common problems one can have when listening to someone else, but also suggestions as to how these can be overcome.

A couple of months ago I read a book titled ‘Coaching Yourself to Leadership’ – although I found it quite heavy going in places, it too touches on some listening barriers, namely:

Advising: After hearing only a few words, you believe that you know how to solve the person’s problem and you start offering advice.
Comparing: As you listen to the other person, your insecurities get triggered, and you start comparing yourself to the person—assessing which one of you is better, more knowledgeable, more competent, etc.
Daydreaming: You get triggered by something the other person says and you’re off in your own world. You don’t have a clue what the person said to you.
Derailing: You find the subject matter uncomfortable, so you abruptly change the subject or interrupt with a joke.
Filling-in: You don’t let the other person finish her sentence; instead you finish it for her.
Filtering: You only listen to the part of the message that is important to you, and tune out the rest. You either pay attention to things that might be emotionally threatening (and fail to hear anything good), or you only hear what is good (and fail to hear the parts that are negative).
Identifying: You identify with what the person is telling you and swing the conversation back to yourself, telling how something similar happened to you. You become engrossed in telling your story, and don’t really listen to the other person or allow her the space to continue her story.
Judging: You make hasty judgments about people before completely listening to what they have to say.
Mind Reading: You look for what you perceive to be the truth, and end up making assumptions that have little to do with what the person is actually saying to you.
Placating: You want to be nice and supportive; therefore, you voice agreement with everything that is being said, even if you don’t really agree. Because you don’t really want to disagree, you don’t listen deeply enough to fully examine the other person’s viewpoint.
Rehearsing: Rather than listening, you are mentally preparing what you are going to say. You might look interested, but you’re really concentrating on planning how you’re going to respond.
Sparring: You quickly disagree with the other person because you have a strong point of view. The other person feels like she hasn’t had a chance to be heard.

I hope this is ok to post on here – I’ve just written up the points straight from the book. Copyright of the author Peter O’Brien and all that.

I know I do at least 3 of those, and that’s being kind to myself!

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Written by Mark

September 3rd, 2006 at 3:39 pm