The Valuable Dev

Active Listening for Developers

Listening is much more than staying silent and noding

What are the oldest and most complex tools we use every day, source of the biggest challenges we have to face in our daily work?

Our brain and our natural language.

We all had the pleasure to implement the wrong features, bring complex solutions, and create bugs because of miscommunication. Communication will always be flawed because it’s imperfect. But we can’t really “be” in the mind of the other, so it’s the best tool we have to collaborate. In that regard, active listening can help us get better.

I thought for a long time that listening was easy. I even thought that I had some natural talent, that I could listen better than others. After all, it’s only sitting down, nodding from time to time, and trying to understand what the others are saying. Right?

When I became a team leader mentoring developers, I understood quickly that I was wrong. It was too easy to let my opinions dominate my thoughts, and I understood quickly that I needed to listen more to my coworker to really understand how they could help me and the companies we were working for.

According to studies I’ll mention in this article, we’re generally pretty bad at listening. We have the impression we are good listeners, but the reality of our daily conversations doesn’t really match these beliefs. That’s why I’m writing this article today; to help developers becoming better active listener. More precisely, we’ll see together:

  • What ideas are behind the concept of active listening.
  • The benefits of actively listening.
  • The type of conversations where active listening works best.
  • Concrete tips how to listen actively.
  • The challenge of active listening in remote work.

We have the map, so we’re now fully equipped to explore the lands of good listening. Take your backpack and let’s go.

Defining Active Listening

Let’s go back to the basics: what means hearing, and how is it different from listening?

Let’s look first at the definition of “to hear” in the good old Oxford dictionary:

The faculty of perceiving sounds.

Pretty self-explanatory. What about “to listen”?

Give one’s attention to a sound.

To hear is only to catch sounds with our ears, without thinking about them. You can hear a dog as much as you can hear a coworker. You don’t really care about the meaning of the sound.

To listen it to give attention to what you hear, to try to understand the meaning one tries to convey behind the words.

According to this paper, there is a consensus in academia about the definition of listening. The act of listening is a mix of different and complex processes:

  1. Cognitive processes: interpreting and understanding a message.
  2. Affective processes: being motivated and stimulated by a message.
  3. Behavioral processes: responding with verbal and nonverbal messages.

Listening is to be engaged in a conversation on the cognitive and emotional levels. Our brain and our heart, if you will.

[…] listening is not unstimulated action, but is brought about by action, effort, and resistance that produce an awareness of an “other” who is not ourselves. source

The Benefits of Active Listening

Good communicants are trusted

Active listening goes even beyond the definition explained above: it’s an attempt to understand what the speaker is saying from the perception of the speaker. Said differently, it’s a way to empathize with the speaker.

But why active listening is important for a software developer?

This interesting study suggests that we spend two-third of our time listening to others, or at least hearing them. We need each other. Humanity survived, thrived, and expanded because we formed communities. Communication allows us to coordinate our efforts to survive and thrive. Oral communication, and therefore listening, is one of the oldest form of communication, and maybe the most important in our daily life.

As this other study emphasize:

Software is a by-product of human activities, such as problem solving capabilities, cognitive aspects, and social interaction.

But why listening actively? Why do we need to empathize with a speaker, instead of focusing on our own point of view?

Good conversation is the base of good relationships between individuals. If your colleagues trust you, you’ll be able to have a bigger impact on what you’re doing. But trust needs to be gained overtime, and your behaviors, including your capacity to be a good listener, will influence this trust people will put in you.

Being an active listener can also help you learn and improve. By focusing on what the others are saying instead of your own opinion, you’ll be able to catch flaws in your own thinking. Your ideas will change, evolve, and hopefully get better overtime. The others will complete them with new and fresh insights.

One of the biggest problems in communication, according to this other study, is misunderstanding; we use the same words, but the meaning we attach to them can be different. This meaning depends on our internal world: our experience, our values, what we think is right or wrong. In that regard, the more you’ll “know” the persons around you, the more you’ll be able to decipher what they really mean.

Additionally, thanks to another study, interactions with familiar buddies require less effort. Developers need their brain power to do their work, saving some is always good news.

To drive the point home, multiple studies (cited in this one) suggest that a lack of soft skills is responsible for 80% of workers to fail at their jobs in the software industry, especially because of their “inability to relate with each others”.

Speaking about soft skills...
If you want to step up your soft skills, you might be interested by the book I’m writing.

Hearing denotes a capacity to discriminate characteristics of one’s environment through aural sense perception, but listening is a relationally oriented phenomenon; it “connects and bridges”.

When to Actively Listen

Active listening is useful and all, but is it the case for every conversations? This article develop further the differences between “hearing” and “listening”. According to the authors, mundane conversations, relying mostly on habits with clear and practical goals, are in the “hearing” category.

For example:

  • Saying hello to your colleagues the morning.
  • Ordering a coffee in a coffee shop.

In the same paper, listening is more about:

  • Focusing on understanding and problem solving (cognitive process).
  • Reproducing the emotional experience we perceive in the other (affective process).

As a result, listening would be more useful in conversations where:

  • There are problems to solves.
  • The conversation is quite surprising, challenging the beliefs of the participants.
  • Some actors try to clarify their understanding about some topics.
  • The direction of action to take is somehow blurry.

Listening often follows after things external to ourselves manage to “disrupt our everyday understandings and habits of thought”.

How to Actively Listen

Communication is full of ambiguity

According to the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, we have two brains: one for our logical thoughts (cognitive) and one for our emotions (affective). Both are useful for us to survive and thrive. Being an active listener implies to use both of them.

This study suggests that being an active listener boils down to these three skills:

  • Sensing: paying close attention of what is said and how it is said.
  • Processing: synthesizing the information from a conversation and remembering fragments to construct a narrative whole.
  • Responding: showing that you pay attention and trying to clarify any misunderstanding.

Let’s look to each of these ideas a bit closer.

Sensing

Sensing is trying to understand both explicit and implicit information while the other is speaking. It’s basically trying to read between the lines.

For example, if Davina, your colleague developer, speak about a functionality you should add to your code in a frustrated voice, you can already guess that there’s a problem somewhere. This sensitivity is important for any listeners, because people won’t tell you everything with words.

It’s also trying to put yourself in the other persons’ shoes, trying to acknowledge what they’re saying without putting your own opinions or judgments on top. To explore further our example, Mark Goulston, in his book Just Listen, propose the following questions you could ask to your frustrated colleague:

  1. I’m trying to make a sense what’s your feeling and I think you’re frustrated. Is that correct? If not, what’s your feeling?
  2. How frustrated are you?
  3. And the reason why you’re frustrated is…?
  4. What needs to happen for this feeling to get better?

I would rephrase them as follows:

  1. Is everything fine? I might be wrong but I feel you’re a bit frustrated.
  2. What frustrate you?
  3. How can I help?

These are my set of questions I find particularly useful to debunk any problem or misunderstandings as early as possible. I encourage you to create your own; try to find the ones which are easy for you to ask and which feel natural. As always, trying and experimenting is the key.

To be honest with you, this kind of sensibility is not obvious to me. I know many developers who are fond of logic and don’t see much values in emotions. I was sharing this world view for a long time. But trying to pay attention to others’ body language and trying to read between the lines is something we can practice. It can help find possible problems responsible for negative feelings.

It doesn’t mean that you need to jump to conclusions. When you feel something’s wrong, you should speak about it in a respectful and empathetic way. In my experience, the way we say things is as important as what we want to say.

Developers often consider their craft as a logical and reasonable process, but there is a lot of subjectivity involved in the decisions. If we see every problem as a nail when we have a hammer, it’s also because we really like the hammer. We like our own processes and tools, even if they’re not the best for the task at hand.

That’s why we need this emotional sensibility to take the best decisions without lacking respect of others’ opinions and beliefs. If you begin to criticize bluntly the ways of your colleagues, they’ll resist you. Nobody likes useless debates going indefinitely.

Processing

The processing part of listening allows you to summarize the conversation to remember it, and to keep track of the points the speaker make. It can help you engage in long conversations, or even bring back relevant points from past conversations.

It implies that you’re trying to understand, on a cognitive level, what the other says instead of thinking about what you’ll say, or what you think. To remember, you can try to extract the part summarizing what the speaker is saying. You can also try to link your past experiences with the ones of the speaker in your mind.

For example, if Davina explains that she’s frustrated by your code and begin to explain what you did wrong, don’t try first to create in your head some counter-arguments to be right. Often, our ego is trying to resist because we feel personally attacked; but it’s not about us, it’s about some code. You’re not your ideas or your code.

Instead, you should try to really understand what she’s saying and try to link it to your own experiences, even if it proves her right. Do you remember when you were frustrated by the code of another colleague? How did you react?

The most important is to tend to your shared goals, that is, having a healthy codebase. Not to be right.

Another bad habit we should avoid: thinking that we know what the person will say next. As a result, the listeners will often interrupt the speakers to complete their sentences. But, by doing so, the listeners miss the chance to hear a possible groundbreaking idea, or ways to formulate ideas changing their perspectives. I sometimes struggle with this; but, like every habit, we can improve it with enough efforts and care.

To make sure you understood everything, you can ask questions. For example:

  • What do you mean by hard coupling in that context?
  • Do you have an idea how to refactor this parts?
  • There’s a similar pattern in another part of the codebase. Do you think we should refactor it too?
  • You main concern is my inheritance hierarchy coupling everything. Did I hear you correctly?

Personally, I really like to ask questions I think I know the answer. It often provides different insights without influencing the others with my own opinion.

Responding

Listening also implies communicating in verbal and nonverbal ways.

Nonverbal Listening

Studies about communication and active listening seem to agree that showing nonverbal behaviors can demonstrate attention, understanding, responsiveness, and empathy. It will help the speakers to feel at ease and, consequently, they will express themselves fully.

These nonverbal behaviors include:

  • Nodding.
  • The famous “Mm-mh”.
  • Regular eyes contact (but not all the time or everybody will think you’re a psychopath).
  • Not crossing the arms to show that you’re open to new ideas.
  • Leaning forward the speaker.

More importantly, don’t use your phone, your laptop, or any other device while you’re listening to somebody. Otherwise, it’s a clear signal that you don’t really care.

Verbal Listening

Listening is not only nonverbal. Good listeners will be interested and curious about the others. They’ll try to understand fully what they really mean.

According to this study and this one, verbal listening seems even more important than its nonverbal counterpart.

Asking Questions

Asking questions is an important part of active listening. Again, they shouldn’t be used to prove your point, to speak about you, or to manipulate the others, but to generate insights and develop new ideas.

There are different type of questions you can ask:

  • Open questions can help gather information and facts. These are the most useful type of questions to ask. For example:
    • What’s your concerns about this code?
    • In your opinion, what are the possible module which might break?
  • Hypothetical questions to suggest an approach to solve the problem. For example:
    • If we had more time, could we refactor this part of the codebase?
    • Do you think it would have been more secure to use X technology?
  • Reflective questions to check understanding and fix misconceptions:
    • If I understood right, it would help us maintain this part of the codebase?
    • If I follow your idea, we should rewrite the whole application. Is it correct?
  • Closing questions to agree and act:
    • “When will we propose this idea to the project manager?”
    • “What the priority of this new feature?”

If the conversation is more axed around emotions, for example a colleague complaining about the company culture or somebody close to burnout, it’s important to focus on the person’s well-being instead of your own opinion or even the possible solutions. In these type of conversations, people will often seek your support before anything else. Asking gentle questions to explore the feelings of the other and avoiding being judgmental can also be a great way to help.

Again, it’s something I personally struggle with. I love solving problem, so I try to solve everything. But that’s not always what people want or need. In my experience, trying to solve problems nobody asked you to solve is often useless and can even backfire.

If you want to add some precisions or even if you disagree with the speakers, hypothetical questions can be really effective to bring your opinion smoothly on the table, and to think, with the others, about the best solution.

Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is another common way to show that you’re actively listening. It’s simply repeating what the speaker said in your own words. It can even clarify misunderstandings and misconceptions.

According to this paper, we can paraphrase:

  • The events, the facts the speaker is giving.
  • The context, the background information surrounding the events.
  • The speaker’s feelings.

It seems that paraphrasing the context is the most helpful. It helps to establish a common ground by proving that you understand each other. It demonstrates cohesion and it can help create an environment where everybody feels safe to explore new ideas.

You can also try to paraphrase what the speaker seems to suggest; another occasion to listen “between the lines” and to be sure that your assumptions are correct. For example:

  • “It seems that you’re suggesting to rewrite this function to fix the problem.”
  • “It appears that fixing this problem would solve this other bug.”

Interconnected Dimensions

Sensing, processing, and responding are interconnected qualities which should always be part of our listening efforts. For example, even if you’re asking good questions but you’re watching your phone every two minutes, it can negate all your efforts. Similarly, if you are really helpful and give a lot of information but you fail to see the speaker’s disappointment, her emotions will negate the insights you give.

That being said, this paper suggests that a person with strong sensing and responding skills will be considered as a stronger communicant. But, since we are knowledge workers, it’s useful to get our information right and implement what we should implement in our applications. That’s why processing is important too.

Listening is an acquired art, not an inherited capacity. Artful listening involves an ability to work through obstacles in relationships over time, to give of oneself to another consistently rather than unpredictably, and to consider that things could be other than what we had assumed them to be. As such, listening is difficult and contingent, rarely done to the satisfaction of all interlocutors.

Listening And Remote Work

Debating remotely is often a bad idea

Listening tend to be more difficult when everybody’s working remote. We lost quite a lot of the nonverbal communication, and it can be more difficult to assess the emotions of a speaker. Additionally, according to this study, conference calls require more effort from the participants.

That being said, you can still see the other persons using webcams and assess the emotional dimension with the tone of their voices, for example. It’s not impossible but it’s more challenging. We need to be even more careful in our active listening practice in these situations.

The fact that we can mute our microphones can help us to listen without interrupting too. But don’t forget that it’s not because people are silent that they’re listening.

Are You Ready To Listen?

Actively listening bring respect and friendship in a team

Properly listening is a difficult task, but it’s not a binary skill, more like a spectrum. It means that we can improve these skills day after day.

In a nutshell:

  • Hearing is an automatic process with clear and defined goals.
  • Active listening can be decomposed in three processes: cognitive, emotional, behavioral.
  • The goals of listening are solving problems, challenging our beliefs, understanding, taking decisions, and supporting our peers.
  • Trying honestly to understand what’s the speaker is trying to convey before openly disagreeing can teach us a lot about the others.
  • According to some studies, asking questions and being engaged in the other’s thinking is more important than staying silent.
  • Trying to ask open questions can help explore the speakers’ point of view.
  • Working remotely makes it more difficult to listen correctly. It’s important, in that case, to try listen even more actively.

I think this quote from Ralph Emerson is the best way to close this article. I replaced the original “Every man” with “Everyone”.

Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar? It is this: Everyone I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.

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