Have you ever found yourself disagreeing with someone about what was said? Perhaps you and one of your coworkers watched a user interview and you walked away with two different interpretations.
Why does this happen?
We’ve already been introduced to the ladder of inference when we discussed finding common ground with engineers. It’s relevant here as well.
As a refresher, the ladder of inference explains that while we may each observe the same event, we select different data to pay attention to, we add meaning to that data based on our own cultural and personal perspective, and then we make assumptions and draw conclusions based on that meaning.
Because so much of our understanding is due to us projecting our own meaning onto the data, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two different people viewing the same interview can walk away with two very different interpretations.
In fact, more often than not, what each of us hears is not at all what was said. Instead, we hear what we think the person said.
Avoid Building the Wrong Product
In The 7 Core Traits of a Good Product Manager, I argue active listening is a critical skill for people building products. Great products address unmet needs. They delight people. They surprise us with how well they just work.
The only way to design products like this is to listen to your users. Of course, I don’t mean you should ask them what to build, we’ve already covered why that’s a bad idea here.
You need to listen for pain points, for unmet needs, for jobs that need to be done. And the only way to truly do this is through active listening.
When you actively listen to your users, it sends them a message. It tells them that you care, that you want to help them. This puts them at ease, it builds trust, it builds rapport. The result, they share more.
This can mean the difference between an insight that changes the direction of your product and a mediocre interview that adds no new information.
Don’t Stop At Listening To Your Users
Active listening isn’t just good for talking with users, but also with your sales team, with your engineers, and with everyone else you have to work with.
How many times have you had a sales rep request a feature only to find out later that it’s not actually what the customer wanted?
It’s easy for us to blame the sales rep, but the reality is, we probably weren’t listening very closely.
I know sales requested it. They said a customer needed it. But that’s just what was said. You need to dig deeper. What did they really need? What wasn’t being said? What’s the context? Is it being colored by emotion? The pressure of making the sale?
You need to fully engage and hear the whole message. You can only do that with active listening.
What Is Active Listening?
Active listening can be broken down into 4 key steps. You may read them and think that you already do this. But next time you are engaged in a conversation, take the time to note each one. We all have room for improvement in this area.
The first step is practice empathy. That was our first trait of a good product manager and for good reason. In the context of listening, it helps us focus on the other person. The first points of divergence on the ladder of inference is what data we select and then what meaning we associate with that data. If we practice empathy, we are more likely to see the data from the speaker’s perspective.
This means focusing on what the speaker is actually saying, not what we want to hear, thinking from their perspective, and not projecting our own experiences on to their words.
A big part of this is understanding our own filters – the ways that we add meaning to the data we select – and actively questioning them. For Stephen Covey fans, it means seeking to understand, before being understood.
The second step is to note the total meaning. We all know that we don’t always say what we mean. Often the affect (the emotion or feeling) in our message communicates as much, if not more, of what we mean than the words that we use.
Active listeners listen for the feeling as well as the words. is the speaker upset, happy, frustrated, elated?
The third component of active listening is to note the non-verbal cues. These include tone of voice, clarity of speed, rate of speech, and whether or not they hesitate.
It also includes body language such as their facial expressions, their posture, their hand movements, eye movements, and even their breathing. Everything is a clue to uncovering the speaker’s meaning.
The fourth step is to reflect back to the speaker what you heard. This may not seem like a listening skill, but even when you focus on the first three steps, it’s often not enough. You need to confirm with the speaker, that what you heard, is in fact what they meant.
How Do You Get Better at Active Listening?
Now that we know what active listening is and why it’s important, how do you get batter at it? First and foremost, it takes practice.
Now that you know the four components, be mindful of them the next time you engage in conversation. Where are your weak spots? What are you naturally good at?
Here are a few other things to keep in mind.
When you reflect back on what you heard, don’t just parrot what the speaker said. Try to put what they said into your own words. This will not only help increase your understanding, it will also help you remember it later.
Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what they mean, don’t assume or project. Instead, ask the speaker for clarification. This can be hard. It’s easy for our brains to fill in missing pieces, but often we fill in the gaps with our own assumptions not with what the speaker actually meant. Fight that urge, and ask a question instead.
Similarly, be sure to suspend judgment, don’t jump to conclusions. We often spend most of our time in conversations crafting our counterpoints rathe than actually listening to what is being said. This is precisely why we often miss most of the conversation. Hold off on doing so. Just hear the other person out. You have a lifetime ahead of you to be heard.
No matter how good your listening skills are, we can all benefit from a little bit of practice. In your next conversation, take note of the 4 steps to active listening and make sure you do each one. It will pay off over time.
Active listening is the second skill identified as one of the core skills of great product managers. You can deliberately practice your active listening skills in my Continuous Interviewing course. You should join us!