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Improve your communication skills by learning to listen

Here is a brief summary of the key elements of the popular talk I gave recently on listening skills.

I believe the next advance in how we build software won’t come from a new process or tool for organizing work, see but from new ideas about how we think and relate to one another during the creative process. That’s why I’ve been reading more about communication and relationships than about Kanban, adiposity Scrum, SAFe, XP, etc., lately.

Here’s what I’ve found most useful from my new approach to thinking about collaboration.

Listening well creates a space for better thinking while improving relationships and practicing respect for others. If you are not great at listening, an easy first step is to stop talking. Then stop thinking about talking and pretend, if it’s not obvious to you yet, that the person who is talking is as good at thinking as you are. You may suddenly have a good idea, or you may have information that the person speaking doesn’t. That’s not a good enough reason to interrupt them when they are thinking. Trust yourself to have that good idea or recall that helpful fact when your turn to speak comes. Your turn to speak is not the moment the current speaker pauses to take a breath. You may not be interrupting their sentence, but you are interrupting their thinking, which harms the quality of their thinking and the quality of your relationship. If someone knows you will interrupt them, they rush their thinking and get flustered. If, from experience, they know you won’t interrupt, they are free to take their time to think clearly and carefully. Moreover, they are more likely to think well if they can tell that you believe they are capable of it. If you think they are done, don’t ask “are you done?” That’s a leading question. Ask some variation of “is there anything else?” When there’s nothing else, it’s your turn. You’ll find this approach leads to better ideas, less confrontation, more efficient communication, and people will like and respect you more.

Sometimes talking isn’t about thinking as much as it is about expression. In these instances, while listening as you would in a thinking environment is helpful, non-violent communication can provide powerful tools. At its core, non-violent communication is about understanding each other without judgement or manipulation. When someone speaks to another person, underlying their words is an attempt to communicate feelings, needs and requests, usually motivated by some observation. The four components of effective communication are therefore observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Unfortunately, many utterances are not very effective. For example, a parent sees her son doing a dangerous trick on his bicycle. Does she say, “Son, when I saw you doing something that could result in you getting hurt I felt scared because your presence enriches my life with love, inspiration, and a feeling of purpose and the fear that I might lose you and all that you are to me is terrifying. Would you be willing to wear a helmet when you ride your bike and if you must do tricks, to do them in the stunt riding park where there are people who can help you to learn to do them safely?” No, she probably doesn’t say that. What she says instead is “What the hell were you thinking?!!” It goes both ways, too. The son, rather than yelling “You never let me do anything!” could also ask questions to help his mother discover and express her feelings, needs, and requests, such as “Did you feel angry when I did tricks on my bike in the driveway?” He’d be wrong, but that opens the door for the mother to say, “No, I felt scared.” Now the conversation is on a productive track.

It’s not easy to do, though, and learning to discipline your mind through simple techniques like mindfulness meditation can help you learn to shift your focus and way of thinking on the fly. You don’t have to be spiritual to mediate, or particularly skilled. You don’t even have to do it well for it to be effective. The simplest mindfulness exercise anyone can do is to count your breaths, 1-10, and then repeat for a few minutes. If your mind wanders or you lose count, don’t worry, just start again at 1. The simple process of 1) noticing that your mind has wandered and 2) bringing it back to the task of counting your breaths makes you both more aware of the way that thoughts and feelings drift in and drift out without needing to affect reality of you don’t let them and it teaches you to bring your focus back to where you want it to be. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

MindMap of the Talk



I’ve been reading a lot on these topics, but these are the three primary sources that contributed to this talk:

Kline, N. (2002). Time to think: Listening to ignite the human mind. Kwinana, W.A.: Graewood Business Services.

Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books.

Rosenberg, M., & Rosenberg, M. (2003). Non-violent communication: A language of life : Create your life, your relationships & your world in harmony with your values (Revised/Expanded ed.). Encinitas, Calif.: Puddle Dancer ;.

Learn More

Thinking Environment:




Non-violent communication:



Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Puddicombe, A. (2011). Get some headspace: 10 minutes can make all the difference. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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