‘Attentive listening’ is a key skill we must all excel in the Agile age

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Oct 04, 2020
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Sometimes it’s the simple things that make a profound difference. Sometimes they can be so blindingly obvious that we cannot see them. And the biggest impediment to progress can be between our own ears.

In this article I will describe ‘attentive listening’. We will cover how to do it, why it works and when to do it. At all times we will bear in mind the Agile manifesto commitment to maximizing the amount of work not done – not done by us, by the teams we work with and by the stakeholder!

Listening is a cornerstone skill of business analysis. If an analyst is to be of any value then they must be alert to clues in the environment. What thoughts, frustrations and opportunities are there? Understanding what is said, is an absolutely fundamental part of any analysis in order to produce useful insight or alignment.

So, you listen already? Sure you do, yet what are you listening to? The whole of what the speaker has to say? Are you giving them a chance to finish their thoughts?

Attentive Listening

A lesson from history

Towards the beginning of my journey in IT, I thought that I knew best, I could persuade or ‘tell’ someone, or, alternately, I felt I had to add analysis ‘value’. It went like this… I would ask a question, then I would then do one (or more) of these things whilst the response was being given.

  • Write down words other than those spoken.
  • Panic.
  • Let my attention drift.
  • Imply the speaker had misunderstood their problem, hadn’t stated all of their requirements.
  • Tell the speaker they had used imprecise, vague words.
  • Not listen to the whole message.
  • Check understanding by paraphrasing – yes, I know.

Now I think you could agree that any of the above signal muddled thinking, hubris, lack of experience, or questionable question selection. Probably a mixture of them all.

My mode was leading to an irony…

Desire to help + (muddled thinking or poor question choice or hubris or lack of experience) = negative help.

I could now send my team chasing non value add stuff, and lessen the chances of future co-operation. In Agile terms I had increased unnecessary work and lost alignment

Wait, it’s worse than that. I also caused;

  • Frustration for the speaker.
  • Lack of accuracy in my understanding.
  • A feeling of lack of respect.
  • More work and more questions to answer.
  • Opportunity loss, because of loss of pace.
  • Communication problems and loss of trust.

Of course, I didn’t consciously intend the above but it happened. It happened because I interrupted and derailed the speakers answers.

Before we move onto the skill of ‘attentive listening’ the sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that ‘poor question choice’ can cause problems. Who is in control of the questions? Yes. Think carefully before you ask. Questioning is a huge subject, one for another day so we will not digress here - just notice that it needs careful thought.

Attentive listening

Back to the present, I forgive the inexperienced me for wanting to be useful, (and I do hope the stakeholders I am thinking of will have too!). A wiser me can now see there is an easier, much more humble and productive way. And it is so easy to do, and it conforms to my personal mantra of doing less and achieving more. I should note here that much of the useful insight comes from the world of life and personal coaching, where there is much to learn and profit from. See the note at the end of the article for further reading.

So, let’s get to it, ‘attentive listening’.

The key consideration here is to listen with a high degree of attentiveness. You do that already? “Yup”, you say, “and because I care, I clarify, paraphrase, ask to deep dive that word, etc, etc…. “. If this is you then, no matter how well intentioned, you are interrupting the speaker’s flow of thoughts. Think about it; how many times has someone interrupted you just as you were about to say something important, and then you lost the moment dealing with the interruption?

If you are asking a question then you need input. That input in its most powerful form is complete and in the speaker’s own words. Attentive listening will get you this.

Here are the behaviours you need to listen attentively;

  • Keep your body language open and curious. Focus on the speaker, with undivided attention. If you need to make notes then do so minimally and unobtrusively – and use the exact words that the speaker used.
  • If the speaker goes silent, and is clearly gathering their thoughts, then allow that to happen. Stay curious. What might they say next? Wait.
  • If the speaker goes silent and looks like they have exhausted their train of thought, then ask, “Is there anything else you would like to say about [this]?” Let them go again – at this point they will get closer to the heart of the matter for them.
  • When the speaker has said everything then they will say so. Thank them for their frankness, openness, honesty.
  • In general terms, if a stakeholder looks like they have finished speaking, wait at least three seconds before venturing your next words. Stay attentive during those seconds.

That’s it.

Much as I believe in positive language, here is a list of things not to do whilst listening;

  • Interrupt, interject.
  • Disagree.
  • Clarify, ask for more detail.
  • Paraphrase / check understanding.

Any of the above don’ts will interrupt the flow of the speaker’s thoughts and derail them from sharing completely, and it will lessen your focus on what they are saying because you will be busy thinking up value or ‘cleverness’ you can add.

The speaker may have just been about to propose a super elegant resolution to a thorny issue, or say it doesn’t really matter if…, or provide crucial information! Let them speak!

Advantages

Allowing a stakeholder time to talk, to express their ideas, feelings, vulnerabilities (if you are honoured) is a profoundly respectful thing to do. Consider;

  • Trust is created by curiosity and understanding the world view of the stakeholder.
  • The door is opened to further thoughts.
  • Cards are on the table and quite possibly tacit agendas are being indicated.
  • You will discover things you did not know (unknown unknowns).
  • A shared language and a point to anchor to in further discussions is available.
  • It generates options that would have the commitment of the speaker.
  • It frees you from the adoptive burden of trying to get to the same information by more tortious means.

So far so good.

Disadvantages

We may have ended up with;

  • Information that is not relevant to our work. We can manage that ‘off of the table’.
  • We may have created a feeling of power, or entitlement, to a say or an accountability. If that has happened then that needs to be managed. Better, we need to forestall this type of situation by tuning our question– e.g. “What factors would you want the decision makers to bear in mind…?”

Better analysis?

In the beginning I posited the following;

Desire to help + inattentive listening = negative outcomes

This can be changed easily to;

Desire to help + attentive listening = positive outcomes

Better outputs for a fraction of the effort. So yes, much better. There is of course a time and place for it. More of that later. But first…

Why does it work?

Ever had that feeling that you need to talk something through in your own words? You just want someone to listen?

The process of verbalising thoughts for an attentive listener requires we construct a narrative or coherence. This tends to slow the thoughts down and orders them. As we recognise gaps in the narrative our subconscious accesses relevant ideas and associations. We become aware of inconsistencies, surprise ourselves with connections, often solve our own problems, generate options, and gain insight.

Now, take note, the attention of the listener is critical to the quality of this process. If the listener is clearly attentively listening the speaker will go on. Any interruption will probably cut the narrative short or introduce the interrupters agenda.

When to use attentive listening

In general terms, attentive listening is valuable at all times. There are particularly useful moments;

  • Discovery. A complete picture needs to be given the chance to emerge.
  • During any meeting or discussion when somebody states a passionately held belief. Listen carefully, tacit agendas may be revealed.

How to use attentive listening

In 1:1 Interviews

This is prime territory. Here it is possible to create a controlled environment for listening because it is a meeting you set up, and you are in control of the agenda and questions. Whether the context is a business impact study or a solution design phase, anytime you are aligning, discovering, or exploring, this is a great opportunity for real insight.

Here is how to do it:

1. Set the context
There are two components to this. First, there are any guardrails you might posit over the scope of the answer. The second is that you are offering the speaker the chance to speak uninterrupted for either; as long as they need or, for a time limited period (e.g. the next three minutes).

2. Ask your question
As noted, ‘Ask your question’ is a massive subject in its own right. We’ve no need to go into that subject deeply here because it’s not our focus. Yet, we do need to be clear that the question type that goes with ‘attentive listening’ is the ‘open ended’ question type.

Examples;

Closed Ended question – “Will the work of your team change in the next 12 months?” Open Ended Question – “In what ways might the work of your team change in the next 12 months?”

The Closed Ended example above will probably elicit a minimal response, maybe a bit of exasperation, and a sense that valuable time is being taken up with the obvious. Let’s ignore that one.
The Open-Ended example might well produce a very long and detailed answer. That’s the one we want because it provides a blank canvas for the answer.

3. Listen Attentively – as described above

4. Remember to process the outputs as you normally would.
Of course, you need to analyse the outputs, follow up with deep dives, whatever you need to do. You just need to do it after listening attentively. Whether that is in the same meeting or another is a moot point for this discussion.

Any other situation

There is plenty of scope for attentive listening in other situations; corridor conversations, by the watercooler, or in any meeting.

  • In meetings
    Anytime anyone says something then give it the respect that it deserves - listen. Note down the exact words and use those as a pretext for a follow up if necessary. Model attentive listening as much as you are able when someone else is speaking.
  • Informal meetings
    If a conversation sparks up and a stakeholder provides a view, then switch into attentive listening mode. The formality in a 1:1 meeting might not be there but allow the attentive listening process to work – stay curious, use informal language to prompt further thoughts.

Conclusion

Attentive listening is a simple and highly effective behaviour, a particular piece of magic that you can access quite easily. The effect can be startlingly valuable. Very satisfyingly it aligns completely with the Agile manifesto commitment to maximizing the amount of work not done.

Be curious and listen attentively. Communication really is at the heart of what we do well.

If you would like to follow up on the ideas in this article then do look for Nancy Kline’s book named ‘Time to Think’ which goes into great detail about this subject.


Author: Lorezon Salzano, BA & Founder, SAL Consulting

Lorenzo is a writer, coach, BA and the founder of SAL Consulting. He muses on why BAs are essential for Agile to work well.

He has a wealth of experience and a record as a developer of people and high performing teams. Laterly he has focussed on bringing together Agile and Lean thinking with structures that enable a clear line of sight for stakeholders at all levels.

His 15 years as a Business Analyst was preceded by systems integration consulting work. Recently he spearheaded introduction of Agile at scale at a global corporate, and found a spiritual home with scaling Agile.

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