Active listening at a tech startup

Last week I worked on my active listening in the office. I chronicled every important meeting and conversation I had. Below are the highlights and lowlights.

What I learned

  • I was worst at active listening when I really needed it. (Darn!) I am now a believer that active listening can improve productivity and relationships in your workplace. Unfortunately this week of reflection showed me that it is hardest to do when it is most necessary- when any combination of these is true:
    • you in are a meeting with multiple people,
    • whom you don’t work with closely or daily,
    • who are expressing strong opinions,
    • and when you have strong opinions yourself.
  • It is much easier to practice active listening when any combination of these is true:
    • you are meeting with someone one on one,
    • when it is someone you work with closely,
    • and when they are expressing opinions you agree with.
  • One signal of good active listening: the person you’re talking to says “Yes!”
  • When I used active listening well, it reduced my stress at work, increased the level of trust in my professional relationships, ensured I was working with accurate information, and made meetings more productive.
  • When I did not use active listening well, it increased my stress, made me feel anxious about my professional relationships, left me at risk of missing the full picture, and made meetings less productive.
  • When I embarked on this weeklong journey I hoped that it would give insight into how I could better apply active listening in the workplace. What I did not expect is to look back at the week and realize how grateful I am to be in my job. Being a product manager is a wonderful role that gives me the ability to interact with many different parts of the company. In just one week I was part of conversations ranging from engineering to data to strategy, user research, partnerships, and sales. I am grateful for this level of exposure and involvement. It also made me realize that being good at active listening is key to being good at product management.
listen-cartoon

Calvin and Hobbes

What is active listening?

Active listening is hard to do. The premise is that when someone is speaking to you, you actually listen to them, as opposed to planning what you’re about to say next (or your grocery list, etc). Active listening does not come naturally to most people, including me.

The context in which most people hear about active listening is couples therapy. It might sound silly, but literally repeating back to the person what you just heard them say works. It works well in romantic relationships, it also works well with friends. It is validating and comforting to feel like someone understands you- and all it takes is repeating back to them what you heard! “It annoyed me that I was late to work because I had to walk the dog.” “I hear you saying that it was annoying for you to be late to work because you had to walk the dog.” YES, YES, YES! It’s magical.

I work in a fast paced startup environment, where maintaining clear communication and consideration can be challenging. So I tried doing some active listening at work to see if it was possible in a professional setting. Here are some examples.

3 Successes with Active Listening

Tuesday

  • On this day, my tech lead- let’s call him George- and I conducted many back to back video chats with teachers for user research. During these sessions, we asked teachers questions and took notes on their answers. Because a video chat can feel less personal than a face to face meeting, I routinely restated or summarized what the teacher was saying, back to them. The teachers always seemed to appreciate this- to know that on the other end of the line, they were being understood. When I correctly summarized what was said, they would often say “YES!” Active listening helped me and George conduct accurate user research.

Wednesday

  • We had our big weekly team meeting today. There was a lot to discuss as the CEO provided some critical feedback to the product team. Active listening was critical- in fact, at one point I explicitly said to the CEO, “Let me repeat back to you what I’m hearing you say.” This was a helpful point in the meeting for many of us in the room. Our team was able to process difficult information and the CEO could confirm our interpretation of his words.
  • As I was getting ready to go home, I was asked to speak with a member of our sales team, who had some questions before a call the next day. Our conversation illuminated some misalignment between what the sales team was selling and what the product team was building (a phenomenon not unheard of at many companies). This could have been an uncomfortable conversation but I was very focused on putting myself in his shoes and talking from his point of view. I knew the misalignment would have to be resolved and that it wouldn’t get done in that one conversation, which helped me stay calm and collected. Active listening helped me understand another person’s perspective, giving me necessary information to resolve a problem.

3 Failures with Active Listening

Monday

  • On Mondays we have a cross-product staff meeting with a representative from every product, where we review a document of all the work that will be completed that week. In this week’s meeting, the CEO was in attendance. The meeting was proceeding pretty routinely, but toward the end things got more heated when one of my coworkers opened a can of worms by asking a sensitive question directed at the CEO. This sparked an intense 5 minutes of conversation, with various people offering their opinions, and I couldn’t help but chime in, since the topic was something I felt strongly about. I failed to active listen in this moment, including when the CEO was speaking. The meeting ended with no positive momentum. I left the meeting feeling flustered- like my opinion had not been heard or validated in any way. I assume others in the room, including the CEO, felt the same. The lack of active listening meant the meeting ended without a cohesive understanding of key issues.

Thursday

  • My parents visited my work and we went out for lunch together. I find active listening with parents can actually be trickier than with most other people because I have a bad habit of reverting to an “eye roll” response in our conversations. Forgetting to active listen can lead to avoiding important topics.

Friday

  • During lunch I met with staff from our sales and marketing team. I did not do a great job active listening and – unsurprisingly- the meeting definitely could have gone much better. The sales and marketing folks are under a lot of pressure. Even though I can easily provide push-back to protect the work my product team is doing- especially the engineering time- I have to do it in the right way. Unfortunately  when my colleagues were speaking to me in impassioned tones, I could not help from responding in impassioned tones from my own perspective. This was not helpful, and the fact that it was a Friday lunch meeting doesn’t give me an excuse to not be as intentional about active listening. Again, the meeting ended with no positive momentum, and with skepticism rather than trust.

 

For more on what worked and didn’t work, feel free to read the full week-long chronicles. I approach this coming week in the office by trying to be intentional again with active listening, especially now that I’m more aware of the particular contexts in which it’s most difficult and important. Wish me luck!

So there you have it folks. Active listening. Do try this at home work.

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One Response to Active listening at a tech startup

  1. Pingback: Active listening: the diary | Edversation

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