Asking Questions Implies Listening

As coaches, leaders, change agents and even parents, the act of asking questions can take on an almost magical power to guide and change behavior. As with any powerful tool, when the tool begins to take on magical attributes, the users of the tool begin to forget that a tool is just a tool.  At that point, to quote Ian Brown, “they just become a fool with a tool.” Questions are a useful tool for a coach because questions: (more…)

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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 401 features three columns!  We begin with our essay on listening.  Every time we answer the phone, interact with a co-worker or even turn on the television we need to hear and interpret the messages that are being sent. Our complicated business and life environments impact how we listen through the situations we face. Listening is important. Like reading, it is fundamental to almost every activity needed to build, enhance or maintain a product; therefore, learning and understanding how to listen, and as importantly how not to listen, are table stakes for getting anything done!

Jon M. Quigley’s second column discusses the topic of cost, quality, testing and contract closure. All of the parts of a product have to fit together for everyone to feel comfortable and pay the bill!

Jeremy Berriault and the QA Corner anchor the cast.  I asked Jeremy to talk about whether developers should test.  (Don’t tell anyone, but the answer is HECK YES.) (more…)

Ruins of Willkarakay

Telling stories is a natural human activity from time immemorial.  Creating a succinct and informative story to describe a business need or the future of an organization is challenging.  Stories are not bulleted presentation slides, although those tools can be used.  Rather stories at this level are longer narratives, or at the very least they are like the paintings in Lascaux Caves which evoke a longer narrative. Narrative storytelling is not a tool typically found or appreciated in status meetings, the process of building a narrative that describes a business need or the journey an organization must take to achieve a goal often needs facilitation.  Three facilitation tools are commonly used to help a team or an individual to build a story in a business environment. They are: (more…)

A coach is much like a honey bee...

A coach is much like a honey bee…

I strongly believe that coaches are not managers or Scrum Masters.  Coaches are a unique mixture of attributes, including being a listener, a learner, a mediator and an evangelist. A deficit in any these attributes will reduce a coach’s effectiveness.

A good coach is a listener.  A coach listens by making a conscious effort to hear not only the words that the other person is saying but, more importantly, trying to understand the complete message being sent. A coach listens to obtain information, to understand and to learn.

A good coach is a learner.  There are two related reasons that being a learner is important.  Agile is continually evolving, therefore the value of what you know now will erode quickly. Secondly, a coach is much like a honey bee, transferring ideas and techniques from one project or organization to another. A coach must actively seek out and learn new techniques and concepts to pollinate new teams and organizations. Without the ability to continually learn, the utility a coach can provide will also erode.

A good coach is a mediator. Conflict that leads to decisions is part and parcel of team life.  Sometimes these decisions and interactions are hard.  A coach plays the role of a mediator who facilitates negotiation to help team members reach a mutually satisfactory solution to their problems, without compulsion. Coaches that can’t mediate tend to revert to management compulsion, which will not only reduce the effectiveness of the coach, but may also injure the team.

 A good coach has to be an evangelist. Lean and Agile focus on only doing the work that delivers business value. Helping a team or an organization embrace Agile techniques effectively means personally embracing and helping the organization embrace the underlying philosophy of Agile.  A coach needs believe in the philosophy so that they can champion and shepherd the journey along the “new way.”  Not being willing to evangelize for the underlying philosophies of Agile will lead to crappy Agile.

Each of the attributes of a good coach – listening, learning, mediation and evangelism – are all required.  Deficits in any will hurt the coaches ability to coach and will reduce the effectiveness of the team.  The attributes that good coaches acquire and foster will increase the ability of teams and organizations ability to deliver value.

Are you listening?

Are you listening?

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: (more…)

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Listening is a core competency to succeed in any walk of life.  Listening is the combination of hearing and interpreting.  Failure in either part is a failure in listening.Many signification failures in software development are failures to use the right type of listening.  Each type of listening is useful in different scenarios and are often practiced intuitively.  Knowing that there are different types of listening and how each can be applied is useful for being a better listener. Requirement defects (misinterpretation of a requirement or a failure to capture a user story) are almost always listening problems. We will tackle many of these when we consider listening anti-patterns.  Examples of types of listening in IT include:

Basic types of listening:

Discriminative listening is when the listener interprets and assigns meaning to sound rather than to words. In discriminative listening, the listener interprets the differences and nuances of sounds and body language.  The listener is sensitive to attributes including rate, volume, pitch and emphasis in speaking.  This type of listening is the most basic form of listening. We learn this form of listening early in life. Recognition and interpretation of accents are an example of discriminative listening. 

Comprehensive listening is the interpretation of the words and ideas.  Comprehensive listening involves understanding the thoughts, ideas, and message.  This type of listening requires that the listener understands the language and vocabulary.  Comprehensive listening builds on discriminative learning.  If you can’t understand the sound, you will not be able to interpret language. Mismatches in vocabulary can disrupt comprehension.  

More specific types of listening to that build on the basics:

Informational listening is a type of goal-based listening that requires the listener to interpret verbal and non-verbal cues to learn. Students in a lecture hall are often in informational listening mode (alternate modes might include critical thinking or sleeping).  The listener typically is a less active participant in the listening process.  One non-verbal signal that someone is in informational listening mode is that they are taking notes. In this form of listening to the listener focuses on understanding the speaker’s message postponing critical thinking and processing until later.  In the corporate environment, this type of listening is often used when listening to reports, briefing, and speeches.  In a recent story development session in which an Agile team was interacting with a group of experts, I observed one person leading the questioning and probing while several other team members listened and took notes. The note takers were using informational listening.

Critical listening focuses on evaluating and analyzing information.   This is a more active form of listening that includes evaluating and making judgments.  The listener is interacting with the information in order to make a judgment.  In a scenario where someone is trying persuade a listener that they should adopt a technique, the listener is typically using critical thinking.   Almost all sales scenarios use critical listening.  In the story development scenario alluded to earlier, the questioner was using critical listening to evaluate the answers and to plan the next question.

Therapeutic listening is technique often used by Scrum masters to help facilitate the team.  Therapeutic listening is a form of active listening in which the listener helps the speaker to draw out and understand their feelings and emotions.  The goal is for the help the listen evaluate and cure their own problems.  I am not suggesting training Scrum Masters as therapists, but leaders often use therapeutic listening to facilitate the resolution of people problems rather than using more authoritarian techniques.

Once upon a time, I sat in a lecture hall for an ECON 101 class twice a week at 8 AM.  The instructor had an accent that I had heard on my radio, but others had never heard the accent.  I was able to immediately meet the basic listening needs and listen to learn.  Others in the class struggled with comprehension (comprehensive listening) and, therefore, could not get into informational or critical listening modes.  Many dropped the class (or slept through it).  As communicators, we need to understand which mode of listening people are using so that we can deliver our message. 

Listening is hard work but  when understand it pays off.

Listening is hard work but when understand it pays off.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey Reread

Habit Five:  Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood

Communication is the act of giving or receiving understanding, and it is a critical skill in every part of our lives. In order to fully communicate, the person receiving must not only understand what is being communicated, but also let the communicator know that they have truly been understood. Listening is at the heart of understanding and communicating.  Even so, we tend to spend very little time learning about or being trained in listening.  Training in listening teaches the trainee how to pay attention and interpret the story being told, and the how language and body language impact the story. These are skills that can be learned. Because of lack of training most of what we hear is filtered through our own frame of reference because we don’t have the skills to listen from the speaker’s frame of reference.

When we listen from our own frame of reference we practice selective listening.  Selective listening generates one of four classes of response.  Based on our baggage, we evaluate communication by agreeing or disagreeing. We probe, asking questions based on our own point of view. We advise, providing counsel based on our experience. Finally we interpret, ascribing motivation based on our motives and behaviors. Our scripting makes it difficult to both hear what is really being said and understanding the emotions and feelings behind what is being said.  Both are required for true communication. The alternative is to put ourselves behind the eyes of speaker, seeking to hear from their frame of reference leads to deeper understanding.

When we fail to listen and understand, we tend to act first then have to take the time to pick up the pieces afterwards. For example, would you trust a doctor that prescribed before taking time to diagnose the problem? No, the expectation would be that the doctor listen and communication with the patient (assuming that is possible) first.

In this habit Covey identifies four stages of listening:

  1. Mimicking – This the classic pattern of feeding back.  In my estimation, this form of listening confuses hearing with understanding.
  2. Rephrase the content – In this stage of listening the listener paraphrases what is heard.  This is typically what is referred to as active listening.  It helps develop a bridge between the listener and the speaker.
  3. Reflect feeling – The stage of listening focuses on reflecting the feelings behind the communication.  The focus on feeling makes the listener put himself in speaker’s shoes.  This stage reflects a change in the listener’s frame of reference.
  4. Empathic listening – This stage is the most powerful form of listening in which the listener plays back both the content though rephrasing, but also the feelings.  The focus is understanding the whole communication package (content and feeling) which allows the listener to build powerful rapport.

Empathic listening requires listening as if you were behind the eyes of the speaker. In many cases when we are not practicing empathic listening, it is because we are listening to be understood. In other words, we are listening just enough that we can craft a response. How many meetings or teleconferences have you participated in and been guilty of listening with the intent to reply rather than with to really hear the other participants’ points of view?

Anyone that works in a corporate environment spends a huge amount of time in meetings, presentations and teleconferences. Huge quantities of words and slides are shared with the assumption that communication is occurring. Even if you are not spending the majority of your time in meetings, you still rely on communication.  Developing the ability to listen empathically forces you to listen from the speaker’s frame of reference, resulting in a deeper understanding.