Poor man’s active listening: is it good or bad?

“Did you understand?” We all know that we can never trust the answer “yes” to this question, yet we fall into this trap unavoidably. Most often due to lack of time or patience.

Ideally, we should get a summary from the listener of his understanding in his own words, much like a checksum, so you are sure the message gets across. Or when we are listening, we should summarize what we just heard and aim to get an acknowledge to that. This is called active listening (or reflective listening on Wikipedia).

Yet sometimes the time is tight, we just feel lazy to execute this method, or our communication partner is not willing to prolong the conversation. In this case, I find an easy solution is to ask if it’s a good or bad thing. An example:

  • The CPU utilization on the device has increased significantly.
  • I see, and that’s a good thing, right?
  • No, the device is in idle mode, we don’t expect a high utilization in this state. It may cause overheating.
  • What about during active use?
  • Yeah, there we expect a high CPU utilization, so the response is sent ASAP. But this should continue only for a short while.

By associating a judgement with the message, we get very cheaply an extended perspective on the message. It also engages our partner more in the communication, whether she agrees or disagrees with the judgement, as judgement is inherently more engaging. Moreover, it provides a quick sync on the basic expectations about the system ranging from requirements to design decisions and test expectations. You can document this stuff in the documentation, but what permeates the daily work is this kind of short and frequent communications, which are difficult to document, and even if documented, hard to bring back to the daily work.

One catch about this cheap method is that you don’t want to associate too much judgement with the system. Ideally we should be neutral about system’s behavior and design and judge solely based on actual requirements. Bringing judgement often into the discussion may cause some bias on the work and too opinionated team members preventing an objective discussion.

Another pattern that I find brings clarity to misunderstandings very quickly is confusion. It may make you appear silly for a second, but in organizations with a productive culture that won’t be a problem.

I find a solid understanding among partners a substantial factor contributing to the team success. Many other success factors necessitate this: alignment on goals, efficient communication & coordination, giving honest feedback… That’s why I suggest applying active listening, or at least just asking if it’s good or bad, quite repetitively in your daily communications.

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