Conference calls. Cameras on. Sharing screens. Breakout rooms.
Distributed working in times of COVID has made these practices more ‘normal’ now than ever before.
Technology like Zoom keeps us going and keeps us connected. I am massively grateful for the ability to stay productive using these platforms.
We’re still allowed to think about how to make it better! Empiricism, or the ability to look closely at something and consider how to improve it, is a foundation of the ways of working of Scrum Teams.
I invite your Scrum Team to consider their listening skills on platforms like Zoom. (If you use other tools, the ideas here will still be relevant). I hope the practical advice shared here will help your Scrum Team listen to each other more intently, and that this will help you have more effective interactions.
Are you listening?
In 2020, the most mundane impediments to communication in teams can be summarised in 5 painful phrases:
- “Can you hear me?”
- “You’re on mute.”
- “… I think you’re on double mute…”
- “… I think you’re breaking up.”
- “Could everyone go on mute if you’re not talking?”
Unfortunately, fragmented interactions like this are the enemies of flow. They take us out of the moment and kill our ability to listen and to concentrate.
In her book “The Coaching Manual”, Julie Starr describes four levels of listening. I found them very relevant to my role working in a team, particularly in these Zoom-enabled days. (I’ve included an adapted image from Julie Starr’s book below)
I use Zoom a lot, and realised that different settings impacted my listening and could move me up or down a level. In addition, how others used the settings impacted my own perception of whether they were listening to me.
At the cosmetic level, we are at a relatively passive level. On a Zoom call, this can manifest itself as behaviours that indicate divided attention.
For example, if my camera is off and my mic is on mute, am I really ‘there’?
The Zoom call may even be on a background setting while I get other important work done.
At this level of listening, I invite you to ask yourself: do you really need to be on that call? It is it an option for you to decline that invitation? It would be a better use of your time and attention to focus on that other work you are doing, and allow the others on that call to focus on what they need to do.
The Law of Two Feet from Open Space applies very well here!
At this level of listening, I am engaged. My mic is on mute, but only so the speaker can avoid interruption: I am ready to come off mute at any time.
The background noise where I am is ‘ambient’, meaning that there could be knocks on the front door, or the neighbours might be getting some DIY done, but I’m not going out of my way to find a quiet spot for this meeting.
I switch my camera on, and self-view is there, unless I want to switch it off (more on that later).
I might occasionally need to be interrupted by other work, simply because there is other important work going on: I may need to respond quickly to help keep something moving.
Unfortunately, I don’t have empirical data, but I believe this is a very common level of listening for busy Scrum Teams.
The question I put to you is: is this an appropriate level of listening?
Wouldn’t it be awesome to practice getting to the next level? Imagine the repetition and waste we could avoid if everyone was focussed on the task at hand!
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Stephen R. Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
At this level, I am focussed on what is happening on the call: on a one to one conversation, I am attentively listening to the other person. In a group call, I am attentive to the whole conversation. In both situations, I am paying attention and recording facts.
I demonstrate this on a call by controlling my background noise if at all possible, and leaving my mic off mute. Switching my camera on shows that I am present.
Here’s a pro tip for Zoom users: if you want to stand a chance of active listening on any call, ‘Hide Self View’. This stops you from being able to see your own camera and removes a big impediment to my ability to concentrate: I can’t see my own reflection any more!
If you also want to give yourself a better chance of listening actively, size the Zoom window larger on the screen, and postpone all other work until the call is done.
Your task as an active listener is to ignore or mute those other notifications prompting you to divide your attention. That includes your mobile phone.
This is a deep cut: for the coaches out there. At this level, I am more focussed on you than me, so self-view is definitely off.
I’d suggest the call window could be maximised, but really what I mean by that is that everything else is minimised: the only thing you want to be paying attention to on-screen is the other person.
One possible exception might be a timer.
At the level of deep listening, it is actually possible to listen to the other person and pick up on more signals that they are sending our way.
Scrum Teams can Contract on a Listening Level
It’s not possible or advisable to stay in a state of deep listening all the time, however. It would be exhausting. Coaches in 121 sessions will engage that level, and I hope that the Zoom settings you use can help with that.
For Scrum Teams, could we engage in some contracting or a team agreement on these levels of listening?
- We all agree to use the call settings as mapped out in our team agreement for conversational listening.
- We will accept invitations to meetings when we can commit to at least a conversational level of listening.
- Otherwise, if I know in advance that my attention will be divided, I have permission to opt-out. I will give the organiser as much advanced notice of this as possible.
Do you think this kind of contracting could make your remote meetings more effective?
Scrum Teams can Practice Active Listening
I would also recommend using a Zoom call to help your Scrum Team practice their listening skills. Try these simple exercises:
1. Bad Listening Practice
Duration: 10 minutes. 5 min breakout, 5 min debrief.
- In pairs, assign two roles: Story Teller and Bad Listener.
- Bad Listener listens to Story Teller at Conversational Level but moves to Cosmetic level at a certain point.
- Bring the groups back and ask Story Tellers how it felt.
- Then ask Bad Listeners how it felt.
2. Active Listening Practice
Duration: 10 minutes. 5 min breakout, 5 min debrief.
- In pairs (same as before or different) assign two roles: Active Listener and Story Teller.
- This time the listener moves into the Active Mode.
- Bring the groups back. Ask Story Tellers how it felt.
- Then ask Active Listeners how it felt.
Understand, Contract and Practice
Understanding the levels of listening that are possible, and the ways to shift between them on Zoom calls could help you and your Scrum Team to think a little bit more about how they are listening to each other.
Contracting on these levels of listening could help your team be more transparent about how they are listening to each other. Perhaps we need to inspect how we are doing it a little more closely and change our practices a little bit.
Finally, practising together can help us all learn how to listen to each other more effectively. The two exercises I’ve described here are quick, safe-to-fail experiments that you can take with a Scrum Team to evaluate how we are doing with our listening skills.
We all need to be listened to. Helping your Scrum Team improve their listening skills will give you a better chance of success, and hopefully not only with Scrum.