Tom listening to music

Actively listening

Listening is important. Like reading, it is fundamental to almost every activity needed to build, enhance or maintain a product. Our complicated business environment impacts how we listen through the situations we face and because of the interruptions we invite.  Examining three listening styles, active, passive and inattentive listening, is useful to understand how we can affect engagement and information transfer based on how we listen.

Active listening is generally the most effective means of listening. However, it is not fully applicable to all listening scenarios.  A simple definition of active listing is focusing on the speaker(s) and providing verbal and non-verbal signs of feedback.  The feedback loop is important as is shows the speaker that you are attentive to them and provide encouragement to them to continue.  Feedback can include smiling at the speaker, making eye contact, posture (such as leaning toward the speaker) and not paying attention to distractions. The listener’s role is in active listening requires engagement.  The listener should take notes, ask questions to elicit clarifications, and provide positive verbal and non-verbal reinforcement. The verbal reinforcement allows the listener to reflect and process the information and is often accomplished by reflecting, paraphrasing or summarizing what they have heard.  I have heard these activities called responding to listen (responding to gain clarity to what has been heard). The listener is paraphrasing what they heard to get confirmation of what they heard and to encourage the speaker to continue.  When paraphrasing, the listener should use emotive words to build bridges.  If interaction with the speaker is not possible one slightly less active technique is to mentally repeat the conversation as it occurs. Active listening forces the listener to pay attention to the speaker.  Active listeners pay attention, show they are listening, provide supportive feedback (reflect or seek feedback), defer judgement (don’t interrupt with counter arguments) and finally respond appropriately.

Passive listeners hear the sounds that are flowing around them. This type of listening is mechanical and often involuntary.  Passive listening is typical when you are listening to a lecture or a podcast while you jog.  The structure of many business scenarios causes passive listening.  Several years ago I addressed 500 colleagues to build awareness of my group’s plans for process improvement (picture a lecture hall full of people at 8:30 AM, most of the people had not had coffee yet – it was not an engaged audience). The lecture format was designed for passive listening even though we included a question and answer period at the end.  Knowing what I now know about listening, I would have designed a different approach that would have been more conducive to active listening, such as scheduling multiple small group meetings.

In scenarios that evoke passive listening, as a listener, you can take a more active approach that will benefit your comprehension and provides support to the speaker.  Consider, mentally repeating the ideas and concepts as you are listening.  Lean into the speaker or presenter; leaning in signals that you are engaged to both the speaker and your subconscious.  Focus on the speaker, paying attention to the words, ideas and body language.  Silence your internal and external dialog to enhance your ability to focus.

Inattentive/Distracted listening is one of the banes of modern listening.  Whether you a person listening to a teleconference while driving or checking your email while listening to your partner, you are breaking the cardinal rule of all forms of listening. Inattention or distraction acts as a filter shoving whatever is not top mind (driving or email in the examples above) into the background.  Distracted listening is ineffective and only makes sense when you do not care about what is happening in the background. 

Active listening is very useful when you are interacting in small groups or other scenarios where you can engage with the speaker.  Team meetings or one-on-one discussions with your product owner are great examples where using active listening techniques are valuable. Sitting in an auditorium listening to your CEO describe this quarter’s results is an example of where passive listening makes sense.  Driving the car with the radio on is a scenario where inattentive listening is perfect.  However, while driving with the radio on might provide great a background, I am fairly certain listening in your team’s stand-up meeting requires a more active approach.