„The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.” – Philosopher Chuang-Tzu
Recently I have been talking to a bunch of people, especially engineers, who are getting interested in the area of Engineering Management. The question I most often get asked is „What does an EM do?”. I feel in two parts about this – on one side I am getting excited to answer this, as I am so passionate about this topic – on the other side I think „Oh ok wow, either they did not have a good manager, or none at all”. With this post, I wanted to share one of the biggest learnings for me on this journey – about Active Listening. It will also hopefully show and bring a bit more light into what a Manager nowadays actually does.
Communication is the most important tool we have when it comes to team work – even more so in remote work, where teams are physically not in one location like my team. Communication sometimes is the only thing we have and the only thing we can build upon! But as an engineer, I focused more on code, than communication. Of course I talked to people, but my output, my work was writing code and solving problems. Communication is not just the talking part. It isn‘t a one-way channel.
When I became a manager I realized that I have to listen a lot more. And when I say a lot, I mean it. Listening sounds simple right? I thought so too – just listen to the words the other person or your team is saying and that‘s it. Well, let me tell you that it is not that plain and simple. Hearing what they are saying is one thing, but really listening – listening for what the meaning is, and how the other person is feeling. This is something I wasn‘t good at, I really sucked at it. As an engineer, whenever I heard „there is a problem” my brain shifted to „let‘s solve it” or „I know a solution”. Being effective is what makes a great engineer – and this is exactly what worked against me at the beginning.
Conversations are a tricky thing. Especially when it comes to difficult topics, like receiving/giving feedback, talking about a very personal topic or personal issues. As a manager, this is what your work is made out of. In those moments it is really important to understand the other person. To be safe that you didn’t get it the wrong way and thus really miss the opportunity to react appropriately – it is important to check whether what you actually heard, is what your counterpart meant. Sometimes the other person isn‘t even sure about how to say it and what to say exactly. So in order to check if you understood everything correctly you should use something called „Active Listening”.
What is „Active Listening”?
When actively listening you are trying to fully concentrate, understand the emotions, respond and then remember what is being said.
Active Listening creates the foundation to have a clear exchange and a shared understanding. Normally I would tend to follow my desire to give advice, share my opinion or show my own emotions. But instead active listening evolves around having a reaction full of empathy. Empathy requires our full attention to understand the whole message. Something I try to repeat in my head in every conversation „Ask, before your give advice or comfort!”
Empathetic Understanding: Empathetic Understanding is what I would call the basic attitude of active listening. With it I am trying to empathise with the other persons feelings and thoughts, in order to follow the conversation. I am there to tell them „I‘ve not only understood what you are saying but also what you meant and how you‘ve felt”. In that way, unreasonable behaviours from my counterpart started to make sense to me. For a limited time I am trying to see the world from the other persons eyes.
Listening is not Agreeing: Listening for a while, to understand the other persons arguments, doesn’t necessarily mean that I am agreeing with them. It is indeed possible to take it all in and then carefully share your own viewpoint, even if it‘s completely different or the same.
A requirement for good active listening is an interest in the person and actually being willing to listen to them. For example if you are being distracted, while talking to someone you have to be open and honest about. Saying can we please postpone this conversation, or ask for some minutes to get the distraction out of your way. Not listening, but pretending to do so is very impolite.
There are two things that I learned and did to use the Active Listening approach more in my conversations.
The first one has to do with paraphrasing. If we understand the statement correctly, it‘ll prove that with a summary of the argument. At the same time, paraphrasing has a great side effect. We are giving the other person time to reflect and listen to their inner voice again more accurately. The best way to paraphrase is to try and repeat the argument in our own words, showing that we understand and asking at the same time if we missed anything. The questions could also focus on what the other person:
- observed: „Are you referring to the number of days I was off in the last two weeks?”
- feels and the needs their emotions evoke: „Do you feel hurt, because you are not getting enough recognition for your work?”
- requests: „Would you like to hear the reasons, why I said that?”
To give you an example: Instead of saying „What did I do?” when you are in a discussion with someone, you could say: „I am frustrated, because I would like to understand what you are referring to. Would you be up for telling me what I did, and what led you to look at me this way?” And of course not always do we have to ask or say it like that, it has to be in the flow of the conversation. Sometimes the tone of the conversation already helps in understanding emotions, and it might then not be helpful to ask and ask again.
The other thing is working on your behavior to react in conversations. I noticed a couple of different phrases, which stopped me from engaging in Active Listening. Most of them came from me wanting to solve things quickly 😉
- Giving Advice: „I think you should, …”; „Why didn‘t you …”
- Stepping it up: „That‘s nothing, listen what happened to me.”
- Comforting: „It wasn‘t your mistake; you tried your best.”
- Telling stories: „That reminds me of a time …”
- Cutting someone short: „Come on, smile. Just hang in there.”
- Pity: „You poor …”
- Interrogate: „When did it begin?”
- Give Explanations: „I would have called, but …”
- Revise: „That‘s not how it went.”
Just having that list written down here, is a big help for me. Whenever I want to go for one now, I try to stop and reflect if I can answer in a better way. I still use some of them here and there, but getting better and working on yourself is a journey.
“In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face, that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.” – Martin Buber
The more I learned about it, and the more I started to actively listen and work on my communication, I noticed that it kind of came in phases. In my case I went through the following 3 stages:
- Signaling that you are listening
- It is important to really concentrate on the conversation, and not fiddle around with other things, turn off the phone and other distractions.
- Keeping eye contact and signaling that you follow with „Yes”, „Ah”, „Hmm” – of course all of that should happen in a natural way. Especially in remote work and video calls it is important to show that you are there, otherwise the conversation partner might ask „Are you still there?”
- Active Listening and Paraphrasing
- Here all of the Active Listening we learned above is happening. Really listening and checking if you understood it correctly. Remember to not do it constantly but mostly for important arguments
- Put the other persons feelings into words
- This is the hardest one, and I am still working on it. But what it means is that you are able to express the feelings of the other person in your own words – „… and you are pretty angry about that, right?”. Even if that is not 100% correct, it signals to the other person to clarify even more – „No the anger passed already, now I am just disappointed”. That all results in an even better understanding.
- You are acting as a mirror, helping the other person to gain more clarity about their own situation.
Not everything is 💯
Of course not everything becomes suddenly super easy when actively listening. There are difficulties too, especially with all our different background, personal stories and cultures.
Time of no solution
Coming from an engineering background, I approach challenges in a very effective way: I want to solve the problem. I had to exercise and tell myself to hold back with my opinion, my ideas or arguments. I had to become comfortable with the „time of no solution” (and let me tell you it is hard!). With Active Listening it is important to first gather all the context in the conversation, and then afterwards start to form a potential solution. Leaving the context exploration out of it, I could end up with unwanted side-effects or the solution to not be effective after all. I learned that solutions are not always made within one conversation. They can take longer, especially when personal and interpersonal challenges are in the mix.
Handling your emotions
We know that as soon as personal topics come up, emotions start to play an important role. We also learned that with active listening, we are putting more focus on those emotions, which means that they‘ll show up in a more significant way. Tears or other forms of emotions are therefore a sign that a crucial topic was just brought up. It is important then to not run away in your head or to hush it off („It is not that bad, right”) or even change the topic, but to embrace the emotions and stay with them. Most of the times that‘s enough. Exactly that, to tolerate someone else’s feelings, without thinking about an immediate solution, is the hard part. Sometimes we are too embarrassed to learn how to cope with moments like this.
In my experience, letting those feelings be heard and understood doesn‘t lead to catastrophic situations but to unexpected positive outcomes.
To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing. I definitely felt that a lot, and sometimes even still feel it now. After a lot of reflection and learning l realized that it can also mean that myself or the other person is just busy with their thoughts and figuring out how and what to say. This is very likely to happen with active listening, as you put more focus on what you will respond with. It is hard to push through but enduring that silence for a couple of seconds can really help and won‘t disturb the other persons thoughts.
If the silence is getting uncomfortable you can also ask „Hey what‘s on your mind?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person really doesn‘t have to say anything anymore. With that questions you are also showing them that you are interested in the inner workings and thoughts and want to have a part in it. Of course the decision to let you know is still with the other person and not you.
What about the other side?
Until now I focused on my own side, the manager, but in a conversation there are always at least two persons. The question I asked myself after learning more about Active Listening and exercising it – How do others receive it?
With Active Listening your conversation partner will not only feel heard but also understood. Even if you didn‘t get everything right on the first go, it is important to show that and follow up with a questions to really get into the detail of the argument or topic the other person has brought up. I have been in those moments, where I realized that the effect on the other person is huge. They suddenly open up and start to engage even more in the conversation.
Active Listening also had another effect I saw in my conversations. It kind of slowed everything down. Instead of sending arguments back and forth, you are really trying to get to the bottom of an issue. In that way it is more likely to understand the real issue of an argument. Of course this can all take a bit longer, but who said we have to be fast (you are not delivering code at the end of your day 😉)? The time investment will be worth it, as you start noticing that the effect will be longer lasting, instead of solving miss-understanding when solving things „fast”.
When is it helpful and when is it not?
Active listening can be especially useful in certain situations and not so in other. If your direct report is bringing up a complicated, personal or other sensitive topic, it can help you to understand the full picture. In your summary of what you heard you can always add or end with the question „Did I get that correctly?”. Or another situation might be if you are in a more heated discussion. Active Listening can help you to see and understand the other side, without ending up in a back and forth of arguments.
You can say „I would like to understand first, what brought you to this opinion, before I can respond to it”. You can also use Active Listening to help the other person understand more of their emotions and thoughts. Through my clarifying asking, it can help the other person to understand their situation in a much clearer way, and might come to a solution themselves. This is pretty powerful, because the person ultimately finds their own way to solve the issue and empowers them in a big way.
But of course there are also ways where it doesn‘t really help. It is not the one solution for everything. Especially as every person has different levels of sensibility – it is important to pair Active Listening with understanding those boundaries. If you ask someone „You seem quite down today”, and the other person responds with „Yes, a family issue is still keeping me up at night, but I don‘t want to talk about it right now” – then you have to respect that and not follow up or ask more questions around that topic.
I hope that I was able to share what it means to become a better listener, and that you at least give it a try!
If you have any thoughts, ideas, questions around that topic please don‘t hesitate to reach out to me. I am super happy to chat and learn from other experiences.
Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌