This is the chronicle of my week, focused on active listening. To read the blog post summarizing what I learned, see “Active listening at a tech startup.”
- 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 3 minutes of conversation, 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. I left the meeting feeling flustered. Instead of active listening, I had just thrown out my own opinion. I felt like my opinion had not been heard or validated in any way. I assume others in the room, including the CEO, felt the same.
- Not long after, I was in a meeting with other members of the product team. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss what metrics we want to look at. The answer was pretty clear in my mind and I ended up dominating the conversation with my input. Even if that was a productive way to engage in the meeting, it did not do me any favors. Though I didn’t get much push back during the meeting, I attributed that partly to people’s exhaustion from the previous meeting, which most of us had been a part of. Though I left the meeting feeling like I had contributed to the outcome, I did not leave feeling great about building relationships with my coworkers, which is equally- if not more- important to my success at work.
- When I wasn’t in meetings, I was usually at my desk talking to the tech lead I work with- let’s call him George. George and I sit next to each other and have a lot to talk about. I think our frequent communication has greatly helped our professional relationship. I can tell we both put effort into understanding where the other person is coming from.
- My team’s morning standup went by quickly, and I did not directly respond to what anyone said. Quick standups are not necessarily a place to practice active listening, but I can still do a better job of making eye contact and paying attention to what everyone on my team is saying, rather than looking at my screen and nodding along.
- I did not have any meetings all day (yay!), though George and I conducted many back to back video chats with teachers for user research. During these sessions, I asked teachers questions while George took notes and occasionally asked his own. 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. If I accurately restated what was said, they would often say “YES!” Teachers are also intimately familiar with the concept of “checks for understanding,” so they were quite receptive to my repeating what they said (some of them also said “great question” before responding to anything I asked, which I loved). I guess I just love talking to teachers. They’re the best.
- In between calls, George and I continued spending much of the day talking to each other. I also noticed for the first time that I’m the only product manager who sits right next to my tech lead. I have moved desks a few times at this job and have sat next to different people. I’ve definitely noticed that sitting next to someone improves my relationship with them (on both a professional and personal level). I guess that’s the proximity principle in action. Since the most important person for me to work well with right now is George, there is no one else I’d rather be proximate to.
- I had a brief one on one meeting with the CEO, where I started the meeting by asking him for some feedback on my performance. Asking for feedback was especially important for me that day, after the intense meeting we were both in on Monday. I was worried that I had upset him by talking back to him during Monday’s meeting when he was particularly impassioned, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to deliver feedback to me directly. Luckily he did not seem upset by my participation. He gave me some positive feedback which was nice to hear, and the constructive criticism he did give was not directed at me personally but at the overall culture on our team. Throughout his feedback, I did use active listening to repeat back what he was saying, and he exclaimed “YES!” when that happened.
- Overall today showed me that I’m much better at active listening in a one on one setting. I also found today much less stressful than yesterday.
- We had our big weekly team meeting today. I did participate and I found myself much calmer. The CEO attended and delivered some of the same feedback he told me on Tuesday. I did actively participate in the meeting but I did not feel like I dominated the conversation. Active listening helped- in fact, at one point I explicitly said to the CEO, “Let me repeat back to you what I’m hearing you say”- which was a helpful point in the meeting for many of us in the room.
- Two coworkers separately asked me to go on walks with them, which I really appreciated. One asked for my advice on a situation affecting their professional development, and another updated me on what was going on in their personal lives. It means a lot when coworkers confide in me, and I treasure that trust. I tried hard to practice active listening during both conversations, though I found it was more difficult to do when I had strong opinions to express.
- George and I continued our video chats with teachers, which continued to go well.
- Toward the end of the day I led a meeting on data analytics, looking at what new data we want to track. It was with two coworkers I work with closely so I had a good sense of where they were coming from. I wasn’t as focused on active listening but the meeting seemed to go well anyway, perhaps because we were so aligned on next steps.
- As I was getting ready to go home, I was asked to speak with a member of our sales team, who asked me some questions before a call he had 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.
- This day was relatively quiet. I had an exploratory phone call with a potential external partner in the morning, which went well- in part because it’s much easier to repeat back to someone what they’re saying when the situation is new and you’re still learning the context. Active listening comes in pretty handy, and almost a bit naturally, during these types of phone calls.
- 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.
- George and I conducted more teacher video chats which all went well.
- We had our company all-hands meeting, where I did not actively participate.
- George and I wrapped up all our video chats with teachers, which all went well.
- During lunch I met with staff from our sales and marketing team. I definitely 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 there is much push back I have to provide to protect the work my product team is doing- especially the engineers- I have to do it in the right way. Unfortunately when they 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.
- I spent the end of the day Friday in front of a whiteboard with George, doing a design thinking exercise as we went over the notes from all of our user research. This was a highly productive session and we came out of it with some clear next steps. Again, the mutual respect and working relationship that George and I have built has helped us get to this point.