What is active listening?
Active listening is a way of listening to another person that enhances shared understanding. The listener concentrates on the speaker, and repeats what the speaker has said.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: a teammate goes into a long story, all the details, sort’ve rambling on. You do your best to listen, you maintain eye contact, you stay aware of your body language, you ask pertinent questions. You are actively listening to your teammate.
Then it’s your turn to talk.
But the moment you start talking, your teammate pulls out a phone. Or she glances quickly at her laptop. Maybe you’re addressing the whole team and as soon as you begin, you realize: nobody’s really listening. Eyes have dropped to screens, or have glazed over. Heads are nodding, but the nods are mistimed with your points. A few mm-hmms are produced, but general agreement isn’t the right response to what you’ve just said.
Active listening? Not so much.
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. – Bryant H. McGill
Here’s the thing: listening takes effort. It takes discipline. Listening is kind of like working out. You know it’s good for you, you say you’re gonna do it more but… Hey, before you say that, I just realized there’s something else I wanted to say!
I’ll stop short of saying that active listening is the panacea for all that ails your team – but it’s close. And, as a matter of fact, we’re not just talking about team dynamics here. Interpersonal relationships, political discourse, meeting new people?
What could they all use more of? Active listening.
Here’s how to improve your active listening skills:
- Maintain good eye contact
- Ask relevant questions
- Don’t check devices
- Don’t think about responses
- Repeat back what the speaker has said
Value the listeners, who make you feel valuable
Think about your friends, your teammates, all the people in your organization. I bet you can identify lots of talkers. And probably great ones at that. But how many great listeners can you name? I’m guessing examples don’t just come flying off the tongue. At least, the spring-to-mind list is considerably shorter for the great listeners. The point is, we don’t emphasize listening enough. Not by a mile. At work, at home, with our friends. Yet we all know the value of good listening. We all know the experience of being in the presence of a great listener.
Speaking of listening, you can listen to this blog!
Listening is an especially tricky subject at work. It doesn’t seem respectful to bust someone for not listening to you, especially when the unimpeachable trump card – Oh, sorry! It was work – is so often played. Fact is, sometimes it is work and coworkers stop listening for legitimate reasons. But many other times it’s just distraction, plain and simple.
- Do people get important work messages while a teammate is talking? Of course.
- Do people prioritize listening over other distractions (not important work items)? Not nearly enough.
A cultural commitment to value the courage to speak up
When I first started at Atlassian, I was introduced to the practice of Stand-ups. If you think stand-ups are just for software teams, think again. I’d seen stand-ups at my previous company but didn’t realize what they were. Then suddenly there I was, the newest member of Atlassian’s content team, standing in a circle, “doing” a stand-up.
At first, it was kind of novel. Exciting, even. In the fashion of developers, we each reported to our assembled (and standing) teammates what we’d done the previous day and what we planned to do that day. But after about two weeks, the practice started to seem, well, not so exciting. Because some days there was a lot to say and that felt good. Other days, though, there wasn’t and that didn’t feel so good. At home, I told my wife about this new team activity called stand-ups and explained how I met with my team every day for ten minutes and gave a status report. “That sounds kind of intense,” she said.
What I liked most about stand-ups was gathering with my team. It gave us a chance to interact. What I liked least about stand-ups was the uncomfortable feeling associated with thinking I needed to “make up some good stuff to say” so that my daily report seemed “good.” Talk about inauthentic.
But that’s where the ethos of agile methodology comes in, of which stand-ups are a central component: cut the bullshit. If you’re engaging in a team practice “just to do it,” and you’re feeling inauthentic, 1) you’re probably not alone, and 2) why do it? How can that possibly be helping your team?
So it was in that agile spirit that I decided to bring up my opinions to a couple of my teammates. (Though not yet to my boss.) And here’s where I really saw Atlassian’s dedication to truth telling, fortified by its core values as well as agile practices. I said I wasn’t really digging our stand-ups, that they seemed kinda phony at times. I explained how, as a writer, my work required plugging away on various drafts and many days I was working on the same thing. It made me feel sheepish not having a whopping status report, like I wasn’t saying enough or that I needed to list out standard day-to-day tasks to prove my busyness.
My teammates listened. (Active listening in practice!) They understood. And one suggested that I bring up the topic at our next retrospective. (Another agile concept I wasn’t yet familiar with.) “Ok,” I said. “But if I bring this up then, will you support me?”
They all said yes.
Remember, I’d just started. Maybe two months in. I was nervous about bringing this up. After all, this was an agile company, practicing agile methodologies! And here I was, about to say I wasn’t really a fan of one of its core practices. But that’s the beauty of agile, and specifically the beauty of the retrospective. The goal is team fellowship; it’s a time for real talk about what’s working, and what isn’t, in a safe space, so your team can improve.
So, with no small amount of trepidation, I ventured: “I’m not really seeing the value of our stand-ups” and explained why. I felt vulnerable, yes. But I felt good, too. I was telling the truth. And here’s the best part: my teammates didn’t look down at their hands, collectively thinking, This new guy ain’t cut out for our way of working. And my boss didn’t fix me with the stink eye.
Instead, she simply asked: What should we adjust?
That’s when I understood that there really is something to this way of working together. Not subtly working against each other, with secrecy and guesswork (as in many corporate environments), but actually working together, as a team.
And guess what? That stand-up “pivot” (jargon alert) wasn’t our last. The first adjustment we tried didn’t quite satisfy either, so we tried another. In the true spirit of agile, we iterated until we got it right. For now, that is.
Is reading a form of listening?
I’d argue yes. Thoroughly reading the materials shared with you by a teammate helps you get into the right mindset for real-time listening later on. Also, like listening, reading is a form of respect. Far too often we hear, Oh, I didn’t get a chance to read that yet.
Now, it’s true there are a lot of things to stay on top of. And, reading is hard work. I’ll admit I don’t thoroughly read all the docs shared with me. But that should be the exception, not the rule. I think diligent reading is a complementary activity that bolsters active listening.
Being listened to makes us feel valued
The purpose of this piece isn’t to shame you into listening more, or to preach at you. Rather, I want to convince you that paying attention to how people are being listened to on your team, and creating a culture with active listening high on its list of core values, will benefit your team – and your organization – in huge ways.
First and foremost, it helps people feel heard. When people feel like they’re being listened to, they feel valued. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to consider its opposite: when people don’t feel heard, they disengage. Not listening – or providing the opportunity to speak freely – creates the perception that individual opinions aren’t valued and are therefore unimportant. This creates a corrosive atmosphere, and ignoring it is a little like wallpapering over a crack; you can pretend it’s not there, but it won’t just “go away” – and will ultimately lead to major structural issues.
Second, listening lays the groundwork for trust. Like all relationships, it’s best to tell the truth. And like all relationships, this should apply to your team. (In the traditional corporate world, however, it too often doesn’t.) Placing a high value on listening gives you more opportunities to be heard, and that makes you feel valued, and that makes you want to share more. It’s a virtuous cycle that is based on trust.
If you (or your teammates) never really say what’s on your mind, how can your team improve?
Because here’s the thing: there are real dangers to not listening to your teammates. Without a doubt, it will affect your team’s performance. For instance, not fully understanding one another can lead to bizarre games of “telephone” where a message gets relayed incorrectly and inconsistently between individuals and across the team, creating confusion on shared understanding. This includes, by the way, listening with a specific result in mind, which forces the conversation down determined paths and discourages alternate viewpoints.
And alternate viewpoints are the straws that stir the drink, are they not? Isn’t that how real innovation happens?
Adopting better active listening techniques won’t just help you handle a particular situation better, it’ll help your attitude and approach toward all future team interactions. It’s a simple, powerful tactic. More than anything, when people feel heard they feel valued and connected. And when a team is connected, it moves as a team and not as a group of individuals.
Also published on Medium.