Listen to Understand, not to Answer
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” wrote Steve Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s true: We often listen with a specific goal in mind, with the intention to reply, to share our perspective, or to convince the other person. As a consequence, we don’t pay full attention to what the other person is saying or filter what is being said; we only hear what supports our view. We obtain partial or selected pieces of information, which can cause us to draw the wrong conclusions and get the wrong end of the stick. To avoid these issues, start by taking a sincere interest in the individual and what the person has to say. Make a conscious effort to listen to understand, not to reply, correct, or criticise.
Give the other Person Your Full Attention
As the person in charge of the product, you are likely to have many duties that compete for your time and attention. It can therefore be tempting to glance at your phone or smart watch to see if an urgent message has arrived while listening to someone. But instead of multi-tasking, minimise any distractions, switch off your devices or close the appropriate applications, and give your full and undivided attention to the other person. Being attentive increases the chances that you receive all the information and take in everything the individual says. It also makes the speaker feel valued and respected. Consequently, the individual is likely to be more trustful and open with you.
Listen for Facts, Feelings, and Needs
When you communicate with people, you may find that you listen for the facts—what is being said. For example, the issues some users experience with the latest version of your product. While facts are undoubtedly important, you shouldn’t stop there. Listen also for what is not being said—the emotions and needs of the other person, as Andrea Cohen et al. recommend in their book Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening. Feelings, such as excitement, enthusiasm, frustration, or sadness, tell you how a person is while speaking. They often manifest themselves in the individual’s body language. Raised voice and a red face are likely to indicate that the person is angry, for example. Needs are the underlying motives we have when we speak. They refer to our intentions and goals and describe why we say what we are saying. Therefore, don’t just take what someone says at face value. Consider how the person is feeling and why she or he is sharing the piece of information. What are the individual’s interests and concerns? What’s really going on here? If you are unsure or want to find out more, ask clarifying questions.
Stay Intentionally Silent
Many people, including myself, are uncomfortable with tolerating silence in conversations. I can be in a rush to conclude the conversation without being fully aware of it; or I might be enjoying it so much that I don’t want to stop. But silence is often necessary to encourage the other person to continue to talk and share something that might be uncomfortable or difficult. To create the necessary space, take three deep breathes or count to ten before you speak giving the individual enough time to finish without feeling rushed. Additionally, being silent for a few seconds allows you to let what you have heard sink in and become aware of how you are before you answer.
Listen with an Open Mind
As the person in charge of the product, you may have strong views of what needs to be done to progress your product. While it’s great to have ideas and opinions, try to hold them lightly and make an effort to listen with an open mind. Don’t immediately judge and dismiss something you don’t like or agree with. Try to be receptive and appreciative of the other person’s perspective even if you initially consider it to be wrong. Otherwise, it will be difficult to receive all the information and understand the individual’s needs and interests. You might even discover that some of your preconceived ideas were wrong or find alternatives that are even more appropriate.
Paying attention to non-verbal information—like voice pitch and volume, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movement—is important: It expresses the speaker’s feelings and it helps you understand the individual’s interests. In fact, studies have found that over 60% of face-to-face is communication done non-verbally. For example, if somebody tells you that she fully supports your product roadmap but rolls her eyes or pulls a face, you know that the person is not being sincere. The individual either wants to make a joke and be jovial—or criticise and belittle the plan.
Asking clarifying questions ensures that you have correctly understood what was said, and it encourages people to provide more information. You might say, for instance, “Can you please give me an example of what you mean?” Asking questions can also make people feel appreciated and build strong relationships: They signal that you are listening and are interested in what the individual has to say. What’s more, questions can encourage people to come up with answers themselves. This leverages their creativity and it generates buy-in and shared ownership in a solution or course of action.
Be careful, though, which questions you ask. Avoid closed questions, as they carry the risk of bias and manipulation by limiting the answers that are available, as well as leading questions. The latter encourage the answer you want to hear and manipulate the conversation. A question like “We have all agreed that the current strategy is the right way forward, don’t we?” strongly encourages people to support your view and not to challenge the strategy.
Be Mindful of Your Own Emotions
Pay attention to how you are affected by what you are hearing. What is your emotional response? Do you feel pleased, flattered, surprised, overwhelmed, tense, irritated, upset, or angry, for example? Is your heart racing, are you shoulders tensioning, or is your throat getting dry? If so, why is that? Being mindful of your bodily sensations and becoming aware of your emotions helps you avoid reacting in an unskilful way—saying something you will later regret or using harsh, hurtful speech.
Maintain Eye Contact
Turn your body towards the speaker, look directly but respectfully at the person, and establish eye contact—unless that’s socially unacceptable, of course. This signals that you are paying attention and are interested in what the other person has to say, and it helps you take in the person’s body language.
Don’t Interrupt the Other Person
If you are anything like me, then you may find it hard to be patient and allow the other person to finish before sharing your perspective. But interrupting the speaker is not only impolite. It can make the individual feel insecure, rejected, hurt, or even angry. As a consequence, the individual will be less receptive to what you have to say or even reject your response in an attempt to retaliate—no matter how factually correct your answer may be.
Listen with Kindness
Successful communication does not only exchange information; it establishes a shared understanding, connects people, and builds strong relationships. To leverage the latter, listen to the other person with kindness: Try to develop a positive, warm-hearted attitude towards the individual. This might feel natural when you find the other person likeable. But if you dislike her or him, you might feel aversion or even ill-will. While that’s a common reaction, negative feelings make it hard to listen with an open mind and empathise with the individual. To overcome a negativity bias, bring to mind the person’s positive traits. Think of the good things the person has said or done. Additionally, separate opinion and individual. A difficult stakeholder may have a brilliant idea; and an opinion you strongly disagree with doesn’t make the individual a bad person.
Don’t Take S***t
While listening attentively, kindly, and with an open mind is helpful, it is important that you take good care of yourself. If you are patiently listening but find it increasingly hard to bear what you are hearing, then consider switching the topic or ending the conversation. For example, you might find that the other person is badmouthing colleagues or personally attacking or insulting you. Alternatively, you might find it upsetting what the person is saying and need time to deal with it. In these cases, it is best to stop the conversation and continue at a later point in time.
But leave a difficult conversation without making things worse, without accusing, blaming, or insulting the other person or retaliating in any other way. This will make it easier to restart the conversation and repair the relationship, if necessary.