The Art of Listening in Solution Design

As I sit in more broad solution design meetings, densely populated with both technical and non-technical personnel, assembled with a concrete goal in mind, I notice one consistent thing among different groups of people: They aren’t listening to each other. Frequently, I hear people repeating something that was said, or asking a question that was already answered, not to mention poor listening behaviors that are much worse, teetering on the edge of being downright unprofessional. Somewhere and sometime along the way, inevitably, despite all our technical educations and managerial trainings, we all at some point let our skill at listening and understanding each other lapse. With that in mind, here are some of the things I see the most, and my most important Dos and Don’ts of listening to your colleagues.

Take Notes

Notes are imperative in any conversation with a goal in mind. And since every meeting should have a goal, you should probably be taking notes at every meeting you’re in. If you aren’t writing anything down at a meeting, either you didn’t need to be there in the first place, or you aren’t listening. Not only does taking notes help you remember and digest what was said, it also demonstrates the value that you place on what others have to say. Consider, additionally, publishing your notes, so that attendees have an opportunity to respond, clarify or agree. This provides a value history of decision points, and gives you a reference to point to in case you run into problems later.

Respect the Speaker

The art of listening begins and ends with respect. Respecting the speaker means not interrupting or talking over them. It means actually hearing and digesting their points as they make them, and waiting for them to finish before offering your take. If you sit in a meeting when the boss is present, you might notice that they are infrequently interrupted, and never talked over. That’s because they have the respect of their authority. A good rule of thumb: when you listen to someone, treat them like they’re your boss. Respecting the speaker is a pretty broad directive, though, so let’s break it down into smaller parts.

Don’t Interrupt

During a discussion involving any difference of opinion, as someone else is talking, something they say will demonstrate one of your points, or illustrate a problem you want to solve, or otherwise remind you of something you want to say. The temptation is overwhelming, at that point, to jump in and take over. And we all, sometimes, give in to it. Try your absolute best to resist that temptation. Interrupting someone’s point with your own is the absolute essence of the overall problem we want to solve. This demonstrates a lack of respect for the speaker and their points, and places higher value on your contribution than theirs. Instead of interrupting, take a note, wait for the natural end of their thought, and call attention back to their point to make your own. The one time it’s ok to interrupt is when someone proposes that the group move on from a topic before you’ve gotten a chance to speak your mind.

Don’t Talk Over Each Other

Nine times out of ten when someone is interrupted, they’re unwilling to relinquish the control and momentum of speaking, so both the interrupted and interrupter continue talking AT each other, with neither able to hear anything, and creating nothing for the other attendees but noise. When you’re interrupted, even though that person is wrong, stop talking, and when the other person finishes, ask them not to interrupt you, and reassure them that you’ll listen to their response when you finish making your point. Talking over someone has no value, and requesting the professional courtesy of being able to finish a thought will be more powerful than you expect.

Ask for Questions

If you’re leading a meeting, always ask for questions before you move on from a topic. If people are listening well, there might be points on note pads that haven’t been made, and those points all deserve to be voiced. Make sure you give people the chance to participate without needing to interrupt or talk over. If you provide opportunity for people to collaborate, they’ll take it, and points can be made and listened to.

Listening to other people is a complex skill that requires practice. Start keeping track of when you’re interrupting someone or talking over them. You will probably notice that it happens more frequently than you thought. Being cognizant of our behavior is the first step to improving it. And by listening well, we can avoid needing to review things that were said, re-asking questions that were answered, and we can productively discuss problems and create solutions that work for all stakeholders.

The quality of listeners is directly proportional to the efficiency and robustness of solution design.