This post is part of a series on Being Awesome at your job.  The first post was on how to manage your career, the second on being a great person to have on a team, and this third part is all about communication.  Since it was soooooo long, I divided it in two parts one on listening and one on sharing information.

Be a great communicator.

When it comes to being a great teammate, or even doing well at managing your career, a cornerstone to all of it is being good at communication.  This doesn’t just mean you get your ideas out clearly (verbally and in writing), but also that you know how to listen and hear others too.

Being a great technologist like means that you can understand complex systems, and wrap your head around difficult problems, but not all of us are great at explaining things so everyone can understand them.   Since there are really two parts to communicating, taking in information (listening) and pushing out information (speaking/writing) let’s handle each one separately.

Listening

How would you feel if people didn’t listen when you spoke?  Hurt. Upset.  Annoyed. Disrespected, even.  Not listening cannot just hurt your relationships with teammates and coworkers, but it also can create the situation where you don’t really have all the ideas or perspectives on a situation or problem (which could translate to poor decision making).  So if you know listening is important, why is it so hard for some of us and how can we change it?

There is a difference between listening (or hearing someone’s words), and active listening (engaging and understanding what someone is saying).  You want to be an active listener, and this means it isn’t enough to just hear what someone is saying.

Active listening means you are focusing on what is being said, and you are open to the speaker’s point of view.  There are two parts to this statement: one is paying attention and synthesizing the information, and the other is being receptive to new ideas or opposing viewpoints.

 

For the first part, paying attention, you should be listening and trying to understand what this means.  For me, this was always very hard to do since I have a hard time with verbal information.  I have learned to do this better by taking notes (and writing down what people say makes them feel heard and important), or listening to statements and then summarizing them in my head.  One way to ensure this is happening, is learning to use follow-ups statements like:

  • “Let me repeat back what you said in my own words, to make sure I understand…”
  • “I believe you said, _______, is that correct?”
  • “To summarize, you said ________”

Each of these makes sure you understood the person’s point of view.  This technique is great way to keep you and speaker on the same page, and is a helpful tactic in any argument or discussion.

 

The second part of active listening is being open.  This means that when you listen you are open or receptive to that person’s thoughts and ideas.  Sometimes this can be really difficult for engineers, or other really smart people, because a lot of the times they are 5 steps ahead of everyone else.  However, interrupting or assuming what someone else is going to say can hinder you from hearing new ideas, or helping teach and lead others to your way of thinking.

This part of listening, is very important to making people feel heard (and not just listening to their words, but understanding their points), but can be hard to change.  To be more receptive to others here are some tips:

  • Don’t interrupt.  This one can be hard, when you already know the answer to something, or have thought through the solution or path already.  However, allowing people to say their thoughts shows respect and consideration for others.
  • Don’t assume what they are going to say.  You might be right, but you could also be wrong, and either way it prevents them from voiding their ideas.  Problem solving, brainstorming, and planning are all things that can be better done collaboratively, and that means each person should have a chance to contribute.
  • Do ask clarifying questions.  Try to understand the “why” behind what they are suggesting, even if the “how” is wrong their motivations may be sound.  Getting to the root of things by asking questions makes the other people feel heard out, ensures the roots of issues get addressed, and can lead to more productive conversations.  One form of this sort of questioning is the Socratic method, which leads people to your conclusion through questions.
  • Do acknowledge their view as important.  They likely wouldn’t have said anything if it didn’t mean something to them.  Therefore acknowledging their point, or motivation behind their point, makes the other person feel recognized and their concerns addressed.  A simple statement like “that is a good thing to consider” or “thanks for bringing that up, we should definitely note it” is all that is needed; even if you plan to refute that view or disagree with it.
  • Do wait for their response.  If you ask someone a question show that you want to hear the answer by waiting for him or her to respond.  Some people (especially technical folks) tend to like to think through things before they verbalize them.  Other people are more comfortable when they are talking.  If you fall into the latter camp, make sure that if you are talking to someone who likes to think through their reply, that you don’t keep talking and wait for their answer.  It’s simple: ask the question, pause and wait.
  • Do notice their body language.  Not all communication is said out loud, so take a few moments and try to observe how the person is reacting to what is transpiring.  Are they guarded?  Visibly upset or shaken?  Are they excited and happy, nodding along to the statements?  These are all clues that can help you understand what is really going on under the covers.  Learning to pay attention to these can help you change your tone, or adjust your approach improving the conversation’s dynamic.

 

When it comes to active listening and being a good teammate, all you really need to do is take care of your teammate’s emotions.  Make them feel important by considering and acknowledging the things they say.  This will make people a lot more likely to share their ideas and make disagreements and discussions more productive.