The Art of Listening

March 5, 2021 Focus area: Scaling Agile

Whether it is leaders, managers or coaches, they want to see individuals and teams perform the best they can. When a problem or challenge becomes apparent, the natural response for many is to jump in and give advice for the individual (or team) to overcome their struggles and continue on their path of productivity and effectiveness. While the intention of this solution-oriented mindset is always positive, it can have its downfalls when the advice precedes understanding the complete background and problem. Receivers can become defensive and hesitant to accept if they feel the advice to their problem is not justified. They might also be unable to turn this advice into concrete improvement actions if they cannot relate to it. Instead of jumping to conclusions and giving (sometimes unsolicited) advice, individuals (or teams) needs to be taken along to understand their core challenges and steer them into improvement actions that will stick. So how can this (well-intentioned) advice-monster be tamed, and individuals (or teams) instead helped to build problem-solving capabilities that enable them to own the solution creation process for their challenges? The answer is to talk less, listen more and ask the right questions. In this article I will outline the importance of active listening and hopefully inspire you with some questions that can help individuals (and teams) develop the toolkit to better understand the challenges they face and potentially come up with improvements themselves.

Active Listening

The first practice that I would like to introduce you to is active listening. Active listening refers to a method of listening where the listener dedicates his whole attention and engagement to the speaker.[1] The listener paraphrases and reflects on what is being said and withholds any type of judgment or comments until the speaker has finished telling his story. This type of listening has shown to increase trust and reduce anxiety in the receiver of advice. Making it a great basis for any conversation that is intended for advice-giving. The end goal of active listening is not to analyse and give your own opinion, but to allow the individual (or team) to own the problem and determine the direction of improvement themselves.

Active listening entails a number of methods that can be applied to become more conscious of your listening mannerism.

  1. Eye contact: Making eye contact for the majority of the time indicates interest and attentiveness. Prevent yourself from looking at your phone or away for extended periods as this may discourage the other person from sharing their story to the fullest.
  2. Body language: Being conscious of your own body language and observing the other person. Folded arms and legs can indicate a closed attitude while a lot of hand motioning has been associated with enthusiasm and passion. Observing and recognizing the body language of somebody can give some crucial insights into the individual’s attitude.
  3. Paraphrasing: Occasionally paraphrase what has been said. This is a method to ensure you correctly understand what the other person is trying to convey. It also indicates interest and attempts to level with the other person.
  4. Interrupting: Do not interrupt the other person mid-sentence or before they are done talking about a topic. Challenge yourself to listen them out before jumping in to ask questions or paraphrase.

With active listening being recognized to bring such value to a conversation, why are we not more conscious of it and actively utilize it in our day-to-day conversations?

Research has shown that individuals feel empowered when ‘pushing’ advice or feedback in a conversation. [2] Taking the backseat in a conversation and actively listening to somebody can make some people experiencing a loss of status and power. When actually it has shown that receivers of advice experience being actively listened to as very positive. They perceive advice-givers as more trustworthy and admirable when they allow the receiver to first tell his story.

Listening carefully and attentively before jumping in to giving the advice also takes more time and energy. It requires dedicated time and effort, which can be difficult when the mind is occupied with other thoughts or work.

Lastly, actively listening means the advice-giver needs to open themselves up to a change of perspective. Part of jumping the gun on advice-giving is that we tend to be very convinced that the advice we have drawn from our (limited) understanding of the situation is the right one. Actively listening to somebody means we could be surprised by how little knowledge we actually have at a given moment in time and that our pre-determined piece of advice is no longer accurate.

To ensure our advice delivers the intended value, it is of the essence that we sometimes put ourselves into less comfortable and less empowered positions to help the receiver feel self-sufficient and accountable. Listening before advising will help us better understand the situation the receiver is in and make them ‘pull’ the advice rather than us ‘pushing’ it onto them.

Pulling over Pushing

Active listening will serve us well to help understand the exact situation and problem an individual is facing. The second step to giving advice that will stick is to inspire and motivate the person to own the advice and drive it going forward.

What we want to prevent in giving advice to somebody is that they fall into the trap of “learned helplessness” where they receive “on demand” advice without making an effort themselves. While we want to support them to find improvements to their challenges, the long-term goal is for people to have the autonomy and motivation to recognize and overcome challenges themselves.

In his book, “The Coaching Habit”, Michael Bungay Stanier talks about 7 powerful questions that coaches and leaders can ask during a coaching session to drive a change in problem-solving behaviour[3]. He proposes the following thought-provoking questions to use interchangeably with active listening during a conversation to get to the root cause of a problem/challenge and enable an individual (or team) to think about improvements themselves:

“What is the problem?”

Kick-starting the conversation with this question places the responsibility on the individual (or team) to elaborate on the challenges they perceive and what they seek advice on. As a leader or coach, we tend to have pre-conceptions on what challenges an individual or team might face. As previously mentioned, there is no guarantee that our understanding of the situation is accurate and our advice therefore suitable. Remain an open mind and listen to what the other person has to say. Our ideas and observations might be confirmed, but they might also show to be inaccurate.

"What else?"

The first problem that the individual (or team) will elaborate on, is very likely not the underlying, root problem. Stimulate the individual (or team) to dig deeper and think of where this issue first surfaced, who was involved, and what the root-cause of it is. Solving an issue only at the surface almost guarantees that it will re-occur at a later moment in time. You can only continue filling the tire with air for so long until you have to actually make the effort to patch up the hole.

"What do you need?"

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea about what the issue is and where the individual or team is struggling. Being the advice-giving maniacs that we tend to be, you probably will have already in your mind formed a piece of advice that will help resolve the issue. But, as mentioned, the end-goal is to enable teams and individuals to help themselves, to attempt finding solutions to their issues themselves, before asking for help from a leader or coach. So put the ball in their park and ask them the simple, yet challenging question, of what they need.

"How can I help you? Can I?"

Having come to a conclusion on the “ask”, help the individual (or team) determine how you as a leader or coach can help them (if you can help them). From my personal observations, individuals tend to feel like they NEED TO ask their coach to help them, just because they were there to help them come to the root of their problem and create a concrete “ask”. Be critical to this and questions the individual (or team) who exactly they need help from. Passing on a message to somebody who can directly help them, for example, is not the task of a coach. This should be the direct responsibility of the individual and only they have enough knowledge and the experience of the issue to explain the situation and formulate what they need to help them overcome the problem. I therefore decided to slightly adjust this question from Stanier’s book to be more critical to the idea that you as the coach will always be able to help the individual (or team) find a solution.

"If you say YES to this, what are you saying NO to?"

The essence of strategy is that we need to prioritize our decisions and consider the gains and losses that result from them. Through this question you can help the individual (or team) create their short- and long-term strategy. If they make decision to resolve an issue they face at the moment, what are the results of this in the long-term? Are the pain-points they feel at this moment in time worth the long-term benefits? Strategic decisions should not be made on a whim but need to be carefully evaluated.

Does this all mean we need to stop ourselves from giving advice completely? No, definitely not. We will always come across individuals and teams who are stuck and unable to overcome challenges they are facing. But rather than jumping the gun on giving advice, use active listening and Stanier’s 7 Questions to get a well-rounded understanding of the situation and stimulate the individual or team to step out of their problem-solving comfort zone to work towards a solution. Having followed this thought path to get to the root-cause of the problem and realize the direction of improvement, will ensure a sustainable solution that is relatable and feasible.

[1] Cuncic, A., “What is active listening?” (2020) at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-active-listening-3024343

[2] Itzchakov, G., Kluger, A.N, The Power of Listening in Helping People Change, The Harvard Business Review (2018)

[3] Stanier, M.B, The Coaching Habit (2016)