Learning to listen

Fellow MVP Chris Shaw (b | t) wrote a blog post earlier this week on learning from mistakes and tagged me to write a similar post – so here it is.

Let me start with a story first. Back in April 1999 I was working for Microsoft on the SQL team as a developer in the Storage Engine team. I’d just joined a few months earlier after spending 5 years at DEC and certainly wasn’t a rookie developer, but I was new at Microsoft. I was writing the DBCC INDEXDEFRAG code and upgrading DBCC SHOWCONTIG (and merging in the functionality of the old, undocumented TVF fn_indexinfo), and I was pretty excited by it (and I still am – defrag/reorg is cool :-).

I was so excited that after I’d had the code for one major part of the project code reviewed by a fellow dev, I checked it in. I remember standing in the corridor outside my office talking with that dev and a tester, when our boss comes along and the conversation turns to my project and I said something like ‘Yup, I just checked in the next part’. My boss’s face started to turn pink and he said ‘ come into my office…’

I then got bawled out because I wasn’t supposed to check in before the boss had reviewed the code it too. I messed up because I hadn’t been listening properly in our team meeting where code review policies had been explained. It wasn’t a nice experience and it was entirely my fault. I decided to start listening. Really listening.

Listening is a critical skill in life – both at work (interacting with clients and colleagues/friends) and at home (interacting with family and friends) – and in my opinion is the most important of the various communication skills (I talk about this and a lot more in my Pluralsight course Communications: How to Talk, Write, Present, and Get Ahead).

As much as possible I like to use what’s called ‘active listening’, where you’re making a conscious effort to focus on what is being said. This involves doing the following:

  • Stop typing and make sure the person can tell you’re paying attention. Even if you can type and listen at the same time, it’s rude and gives the impression that you’re not listening properly.
  • Make eye contact with the person (even just occasionally if that makes you feel uncomfortable). A lot of how humans express themselves involves using the face and eyes so nuanced conversations (e.g. business negotiations, spousal arguments) can be misunderstood without picking up on the visual clues.
  • Remove distractions that prevent you from listening (e.g. step away from a source of noise, turn your back on a television).
  • Ask for a repeat of something that’s not clear so you can make sure you understand it.
  • Summarize what you’ve just heard to make sure you heard what they think they said. This is a great way of being able to get someone to explain something again.

All of these things will make you a better listener, leading to a smoother work and home life. At least that’s the plan :-)

Occasionally I slip up and realize I didn’t listen properly to something important, and then I make doubly sure I’m doing it right for the next few times.

To end with, here are two quotes I like to do with listening:

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

5 thoughts on “Learning to listen

  1. A great post Paul. The inability to be “in the present” and listen is, IMHO, one of our greatest shortcomings as individuals and as a society. It is an indicator of our lack of respect for others, and our ego-centricity. I struggle with this often and regret every instance when I failed to give someone my full attention.

  2. Paul – you’ve had a ton of great content on your blog over the years but this is one of my favorites. Very applicable in personal life and at work with clients. Thank you.

  3. I agree that (active) listening is an important skill for interpersonal communication. Using the mathematical jargon – it’s a condition necessary for interpersonal communication though not sufficient. Without divagating too much on the topic, I would like to add that nowadays it becomes more and more difficult to have a real dialogue with a professional or people close to you. Therefore I find that mastering “the art of dialogue” would be something to aspire for.

    “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” (Stephen R. Covey)
    “In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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