Really listening to someone, and I mean REALLY listening, is a very hard skill for tech professionals. We are taught to solve problems, so when someone comes at us with icky emotions, we want to cut through all that and get to solving the problem.
Problem is, we often solve the wrong problem. To find out what the real issue is, we have to listen. And that means dealing with the emotions.
Why do I bring this up?
I just finished teaching a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People workshop to 23 STEM professionals. On the course evaluation, someone made the comment that bits and pieces were useful, but a lot of it is not really applicable to engineers.
Who knew, after 30 years, that the course should be called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Non-Technical People?
I’m pretty sure that I lost that participant on Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood. It’s the habit that deals with empathetic listening, or listening using your eyes and ears, and most importantly, your heart. That’s where I lose a lot of engineers.
Empathetic Listening: The Basic Concept
It’s actually fairly simple to learn and extremely hard to practice for most people. In a three-day class, we spend about a third of the time on this single habit. It’s that important and that difficult to master.
The basic concept is this: If, during the course of a conversation, you suddenly find yourself faced with any sort of strong emotion emanating from the speaker, you simply reflect that feeling and the situation first.
For example, here’s a conversation between two co-workers, JS and LM.
JS: “I just found out that the customer wants me to add another feature to the software code!” LM will probably WANT to say “Yeah, that sucks!” and exit the conversation posthaste. To practice empathetic listening, though, he should say:
LM: “Wow! You sound really frustrated with your customer.” If JS is really upset about this, he will naturally continue talking. He will probably NOT say, “Well, duh! I just said that!” LM’s logical, tech brain will THINK that’s what JS will say, but JS is wrapped up in his emotions. Let’s assume the conversation continues.
JS: “Jeez, he can’t make up his mind and I’m constantly having to start over!” LM just received new information. It might be the same emotion, but the cause is being unearthed.
LM: “Ah, so you’re frustrated that this will mean starting over.”
JS: “Yeah! ALL my projects are behind and the boss is starting to gripe at me every day!” More information; now we’re really getting somewhere!
LM: “You seem worried that your boss is riding you hard about deadlines.”
JS: “Man! If he’d only listen to me about how we forecast software development so we could develop accurate proposals, this wouldn’t happen!” Woah! Another layer…
LM: “So you’re torqued that your boss is not listening to your forecasting idea.”
JS: “That’s it! Do you have any ideas how I could approach him?
And that, right there, is the green light to go ahead and have a normal conversation. JS is now ready for problem solving because you’ve waded through all his emotions and got down to the real issue.
Empathetic Listening: What Trips Tech People Up
Most people with tech careers like to make decisions based on logic rather than their interpersonal values and feelings. When other people, especially adults, throw emotions at us, we aren’t quite sure what to do with that information in our logical brain.
So we want to ignore it.
But if LM hadn’t kept dealing with JS’ emotions, he might have helped him to solve the wrong problem. Or worse, exited the conversation so fast that poor JS was left stewing all day long and feeling as if LM didn’t give a hoot.
So in the list of things that trip us up, our own logic is at the top. Here are a few more:
- Fear that the speaker will think we sound stupid if we just reflect their words. Nothing is further from the truth. Like in the example above, if the speaker is wrapped up in their emotions, they are not critiquing your speech. They are grateful you are listening.
- Fear that we will pick the wrong emotion to reflect. Take a stab at it. Like 1, they are not likely to critique you. If you guess wrong, the most likely scenario is that they will come back with a correction. “No, I’m not worried! I’m danged mad!”
- Lack of being able to detect the emotion. Only 7% of human communication occurs through the words we choose. 38% is through tone of voice and fully 55% is in the non-verbals. Being able to pick up on non-verbals is an innate skill in humans. Watch those non-verbals. eyebrows drawn, arms waving, fidgeting – they all help tell the story.
So there you have it. Easy, right?
Not so much. But if you practice empathetic listening, it will come more naturally. And when it does, you’ll see the difference in all your relationships.
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: Old programmers never die, they just don’t C as well.