Listening is important for anyone involved in developing, enhancing and maintaining software. Teams that don’t listen well have difficulty identifying and refining needs and coordinating their work. With the demonstrated criticality of listening, organizations and teams should work hard to facilitate improved listening. Every development methodology and framework advanced has made great effort to improve communication, of which listening is a key component. However, significant obstacles to effective listening remain. For example:
- Inattentive / Distracted Listening. There is a common fallacy that multitasking is a 21st Century productivity tool. Even if you can brush your teeth and text at the same time, multitasking while trying to listen means you are not focusing entirely on the speaker and the content, so you’re not really listening. Just don’t do it.
- Believing You Know More Than Anyone Else. Thinking that your opinion is more important than the speaker erects a barrier between you and the speaker. In this scenario, the listener is often looking for a reason to reject or attack the speaker’s position rather than listening to gain deeper knowledge and understanding. If you really do know it all the best course of action is disengage, leave and find your own platform to pontificate from.
- Selective Listening. The listener is only listening for the ideas and concepts that fit their interests or provide support for their position. Selective listening is often a reflection of a cognitive bias. For example, when exercising the the Engineering preference (recently identified in How To Measure Anything, Chapter 12: The Ultimate Measurement Instrument: Human Judges), listeners change their mind about information to provide a supporting rationalization for a decision. My dog provides a perfect example of selective listening. If I whisper the word “treat” under my breath, he immediately trots up to me. On the other hand, when I tell him to “sit”, he sometimes looks at me as if I have lost my grip on sanity. Note: Instead of the dog, I could have pointed to an example involving my children or coworkers with equal ease.
- Listening to Identify the Next Question. This is a particularly pernicious form of selective listening most often practiced in meetings. The listener is focusing not on information and concepts but rather on the how they can challenge the speaker either to burnish their image as a critical thinker or to discredit the speaker. The shift in focus reduces the listener’s ability to hear and interpret what the speaker is saying.
- Talking Over the Speaker. This listening obstacle is the ultimate in dismissals of the speaker. Instead of listening, the anti-listener has decided to not listen. The act of talking over someone removes not only your own ability to hear, but also that of the people around you. I recently participated in a class in which one of the participants got bored and decided to strike up a conversation about a different topic with a colleague during one of the lecture segments in the class. The better behavior would have been to focus on the speaker or to leave.
There are many other obstacles to effective listening, but there are two simple solutions to most of them. The first is the golden rule; paraphrased for listening, listen unto others as you would have them listen to you. Focus on the speaker, avoid distractions and listen to the message. Second, unless your goal is confrontation, if you don’t want to listen, go somewhere else.