In this episode, Susan DiFabio discusses a skill that’s critical to success as a business analyst, product owner, or project manager.  It’s a skill that allows you to build trust and ensure an accurate, shared understanding.  That skill is active listening.

After listening to this episode, you'll understand:

  • What active listening is and why it’s so important
  • How and when to use reflective and exploratory listening
  • How to use silence to increase communication
  • What powerful questions are and how to use them

Show Notes

Good communication is criticalWhat is the most important skill needed by every business analyst, product owner, and project manager? It’s a key component of good communication and it’s skill that allows you to build trust and ensure an accurate, shared understanding.  That skill is . . . active listening.

What is Active Listening?
Active listening can be defined from two perspectives: What is the outcome you’re looking for and what’s your starting stance. The outcome we want with active listening is accurately sending and receiving a message.

This includes not only sending a message, but also confirming correct receipt of the information. This creates a virtuous circle of communication – the more I fully understand you, the more trust you feel to continue the conversation with me. Anything that produces that outcome is what is considered active listening as long as it aligns to the opening stance.

The opening stance must start with authenticity, meaning that I need to be genuinely curious to understand what you’re saying. Along with authenticity, we need acceptance, which means that I accept what you’re telling me as a gift with appreciation and without judgment.

Active listening can go beyond spoken words. It can include written and other forms of communication that confirm that I have heard and understand you.


Can active listening be developed as a skill?
Much like the skill of playing an instrument or sports, active listening can be developed with deliberate practice.

Active listening can be improved through first understanding what those skills look like. Susan breaks active listening into two categories: Reflective Listening and Exploratory Listening.

Reflective listening entail feeding back the same information to the speaker to show that you have heard what they said. It might be identical words or different words with the same meaning. If you change the speaker’s language, you may want to test that you have accurately understood by adding “Did I get that right?” This gives space for the speaker to elaborate on what they said.


Using Silence
Get comfortable with and make strategic use of silence. Most people are uncomfortable with silence and they want to fill the gap. They do this by elaborating on what they’ve said. They may need the silence to figure out how to articulate their thoughts.

Get used to silence be building in small increments. Practice in conversations by being silent for 5 seconds and then 10 seconds. Building your comfort with silence by slowly increasing gaps in talking will allow you to get used to silence.

It’s surprising what people will offer to you if you give them the silence and the space to do that.


Exploratory Listening
Exploratory listening involves asking questions and other approaches to allow the other person to dig deeper and expand on what they’ve said. Be aware of the type of questions you’re asking – are they open or closed? They each have their place and you’ll need to understand when to use each.


When should you use each type of listening?
Reflective listening works well at the beginning of the conversation, especially if you don’t know yet where the conversation is going. Once you understand the other person, you can move to exploratory listening to dive deeper into the issue.

You also need to be aware of your relationship with the other person. To someone with whom you haven’t built a strong relationship, a series of ‘why’ questions can come across as an inquisition.


Reframing Questions for Better Results
Be aware of how you’re presenting your questions. Instead of asking ‘why’, ask ‘what’ or ‘how’. Starting with ‘why’ questions can come across as accusatory. For example, instead of asking “Why did you do that”, ask “What was the outcome you were trying to achieve by doing that”.

Tone of voice and the way you present your question affects how well your question is received. Using a tentative approach and checking for understanding also helps to make sure the message is correctly received.


Using Powerful Questions

Powerful questions cause the person you’re speaking with to have a new insight. It makes the person reflect and explore something they may not have considered. See the links section for a list of sample powerful questions.

Use silence in combination with powerful questions to allow the other person to reflect and gain new insights. Powerful questions can also help people move out of being mired in seeing problems.


Active Listening in Action
Susan’s approach to active listening creates an environment of trust and helps build a shared understanding. Start with reflective listening to build trust by making the other person feel that they’re being heard. Move to exploratory listening to encourage others to share more information. Reframe your questions to create a safe environment to share information and move from judgment to curiosity.

Adding tools such as powerful questions and silence will allow you to get the most out of your communication.



Your Homework

  1. Create a cheat sheet for yourself listing the actions you are going to take to improve your active listening skills.  Use this as a guide and pick one item to work on and improve in your daily interactions.
  2. Find a buddy at work and pair up to practice and give feedback on each other’s active listening skills.

What’s your take?

Do you have any tips to improve listening and communication skills?  Have you used any of the techniques Susan mentioned?  Please share your experience and comments in the section below.


Links mentioned in this episode:

Susan DiFabio

Susan DiFabio

Independent Agile Coach with SKD Consulting

Susan DiFabio is an independent agile coach with SDK Consulting and has spent many years on project teams in roles ranging from developer to designer to project manager to product manager.   Recently, Susan gave a presentation at Agile 2015 entitled “The Single Most Important Skill Every Agilist Needs”.

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