6 mins

Listening is a core collaboration skill – important for team members but essential for leaders.

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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When leaders fail to listen properly, they miss important details, fail to benefit from new ideas, and most importantly, lose the opportunity to deepen trust with their conversation partner. When a leader doesn't listen, a team may continue working on the wrong priorities resulting in rework or missed deadlines. When a leader doesn't listen, they damage trust with their peers and other leaders, limiting their own influence and career growth.

Leaders don't set out with an intention to avoid listening. But staying silent is not the same as listening. This article shares common traps that block engineering leaders from listening and what you can try instead.

The habit of problem-solving blocks listening

Engineering leaders usually have a technical background, and a large part of that was spent solving problems. Over time, repeatedly identifying problems and finding solutions forms a strong habit that is hard to break. In a conversation, this habit guides engineering leaders in the wrong direction. Instead of listening to another person’s needs, the leader listens for a problem. When they feel they have found a problem, their inner dialogue starts searching for an optimal solution.

Not all people start a conversation with the desire for solutions, so be cautious about automatically offering one. In many cases, people start conversations because they seek empathy. Seeking empathy is particularly common when people share a close relationship. For example, a person in a relationship might come home from a difficult day at work, and start a conversation with their partner describing a dramatic event. The person sharing is often not looking for something to ‘do’; they want to hear reassurance. Instead of responding with advice, a more appropriate response might be, ‘You’re right. That situation sounds awful,’ or, ‘That person acted inappropriately. I would be upset about what they did too.’

People need safe places where they can discuss their feelings and have them acknowledged. You don’t necessarily need to share their feelings, but it helps to at least acknowledge them. Empathizing requires a different approach to listening than problem-solving. Some engineering leaders even ask, ‘What sort of response do you want? Empathy or advice?’

Different goals block listening

I once had a frustrating conversation with an engineering leader called Bobby (not their real name). I updated Bobby on how the team was unlikely to hit a planned release date and shared recent events that impacted the plan. A Product Director demanded new features added to the release, and an external partner did not finish their APIs we relied on, delaying integration testing. We also discovered many problems with their final APIs, resulting in more rework than planned.

I outlined the events, their impact, and the decisions Bobby needed to make for us to have a chance of hitting the original deadline. Bobby asked, ‘Are we going to hit the date?’ I repeated how the answer depended on his decisions and that there was a chance of still hitting the deadline. He asked again, ‘But are we going to hit the date?’ Our conversation oscillated between his question and the decisions I needed from Bobby to answer his question. I'm sure Bobby felt like I wasn't answering his question, while I certainly didn't feel like Bobby was hearing my request.

Reflecting on our situation, we had different goals, and our focus on different goals prevented us from listening to each other. It's natural to focus on your own needs in difficult conversations, but you end up talking over each other instead of with each other when you have different ones. If you sense you have different goals, find a way to focus on one goal at a time. In the conversation with Bobby, it might have been smoother to first respond with, ‘No,’ and then ask the question, ‘Would you like to talk about the options to possibly meet the date?’ By following this order, we would have first met Bobby's goal and then together, focused on my goal.

Urgency blocks listening

Meetings form a large part of your week as an engineering leader. Some sessions might be with senior leaders in your organization, while others might be with external parties like investors or auditors. Most likely, many of your meetings will be with your team as a group, or individually in a 1:1. When you sit in one meeting, it’s easy for your mind to wander to future meetings with a more urgent or important topic. Your mind wandering blocks you from listening.

When your mind wanders, you still might show some signs associated with listening like nodding, or saying, ‘Mmhm’ but your mind is elsewhere and not focused on the conversation at hand. Each meeting you attend has a purpose and some expectation of the way you contribute. If you are distracted or focused on a different topic, you cannot effectively contribute.

To stop your mind wandering, review the purpose and your contribution to your current meeting. Remind yourself that you have future dedicated time to address your urgent topic. If you don’t have future dedicated time, reshuffle your calendar so that you do. Practice mindfulness to notice when your mind wanders away from the topic at hand. If the meeting serves no purpose, and you do not need to contribute, consider leaving. Also ask yourself, ‘Why did you first attend the meeting?’ If you cannot focus on the meeting to listen and contribute because of another topic, let your conversation partner know, stop the conversation, and reschedule. It is better to acknowledge that your mind is preoccupied than to pretend you are engaged in the conversation. Make sure you reschedule and not simply cancel if you want to show that you still value the discussion with the other person.

Waiting for a pause to speak blocks listening

The final common trap that blocks effective listening is waiting for a pause to speak. It’s natural that you are eager to share your opinion or idea, and recognize it’s rude to interrupt or talk over the other person, so you wait for a pause. But silence is not the same as a request for your thoughts. A silence might mean your conversation partner is still forming their thoughts or struggling to express what they truly mean and using the pause to stop and think. Talking during these pauses acts as an interruption to the conversation.

Another issue with crystallizing your opinion before your partner finishes speaking is that your idea will not reflect everything they have said. When there is a pause and you share your opinion, your statement may now be incongruent with information your partner just shared. When your statement is incongruent with new information, it underscores how poorly you listened.

One reason people speak as soon as there is silence is their discomfort with silence. To deal with this discomfort, recognize that people require different amounts of time to express their ideas and you speaking serves as a distraction. By staying silent during a pause, you offer your support and indicate your willingness to listen to their fully-formed thought. Another great way to deal with the discomfort of silence is to count to ten and speak only after that time, or when you hear an explicit invitation to speak.

Listening is a foundation skill for leaders

A lot of a leader’s work involves taking part in meetings and having conversations with people. Every meeting or discussion draws on a leader’s listening skill and is worth refining. Avoid these common traps that block you from listening, and when you do, you’ll notice your meetings and conversations flow smoother and are more productive.