Listening Redux: 99 Ways Workshop #33 and #34 (TESTHEAD)

On August 4, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing

The Software Testing Club recently put out an eBook called “99 Things You Can Do to Become a Better Tester“. Some of them are really general and vague. Some of them are remarkably specific.

My goal for the next few weeks is to take the “99 Things” book and see if I can put my own personal spin on each of them, and make a personal workshop out of each of the suggestions.
Suggestion #33: Listen to what your client has to say. This is, by far, the most important (and underrated) Testing skill, in my humble opinion. – Marcelo Cordeiro Leite
Suggestion #34: +1 for listening. Being really, really good at listening helps you not only to understand your client, but to pick up on areas where the team is confused or unsure about what we’re building – a slight hesitation in speech because the dev keeps getting two different entities muddled up, perhaps.
There’s no question that the ability to listen is critical, and being able to understand what is really being asked is a skill that we try to foster, but don’t often get right. For this one, I’m digging into some old Steven Covey wisdom (this is straight out of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s Habit #5, in fact). Don’t feel cheated that I’m putting two workshops together. Chances are, you’ll find this one difficult enough to warrant two places.
Workshop #33 and 34: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”
When you find yourself in a conversation, do you actively stop and try to understand, really understand what the person you are speaking with is trying to say? How often do you find yourself (and don’t cringe, many well meaning adults do these very things all the time):
– Listening just to the things that matter to you, and tuning out or pretending you didn’t hear something that was uncomfortable or not pleasant?
– Find yourself saying “yeah” and “u-huh” a lot (I hear talk show hosts on the radio do it all the time and it really does irritate me, since I know what it is they’re doing). 
– Use the time that the person is speaking to form a rebuttal or comment of what you are going to say next?
– Drop eye contact with people and look elsewhere (granted, for some people, eye contact is uncomfortable, so it’s not necessarily a sign of not listening, but often, it is ).
If any of these feel familiar, don’t feel defensive. It’s not that your a bad person, it’s that you are very typical. Most of us do this, and most of us don’t even realize it. The role of active listening takes a lot of effort, patience and practice, and very often, the ones who do it the least are also the least aware of the fact that they are not listening.
Being engaged in a conversation and replying back actively if often a reflex, and that reflex is usually guided by what we want to have the other person hear, i.e. we care a lot about them understanding what we have to say, but what they have to say? Ehhh, not as much.
So how to break through this? It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder than it seems.
In a critical conversation, be willing to sit and listen to every word  that the person in question has to say. take a pier of paper and a pen if necessary and focus, completely on what they are saying. take down notes, make associations, anything, but focus 100% on what they are saying.
Once they finish, pause, review your notes if necessary, and with an honest and direct “so what you are saying is…” or “if I understand correctly, you feel…” and repeat as closely as you can what you heard in the conversation.
How did you do? Did you really capture what they said? If not, try again, and do the same thing. NO talking, no rebuttal, just listen, take notes, make clarifications.
Are you with me so far? Cool.
Once you have established that the person has said what you really think that they meant to say, wanted to say, needed to say… n ow  take the time and calmly either state your position, or ask additional clarifying questions. You may have bad news, you may not be able to do what they want to have you do, but if you take this approach, seriously use active listening and show the other party that you genuinely heard what they had to say, and the other party really feel that you have done exactly that, even difficult discussions are much more easily handled and contention is often minimized. 
Maintaining eye contact, if you can, not fidgeting or making gestures, not folding your arms, or looking at your phone for the time, etc… all of these support active listening. focus 100% on the person yo hare speaking with, so that they are reassured that you hare giving them your undivided attention, for real, speaks volumes to them.
Bottom Line:

We can spare ourselves a lot of wasted time if we really and truly take the time to listen, and confirm that what we have heard is what they other speaker wants to convey and have understood. It’s a simple concept, but it is super hard to make happen. It takes will power, it takes a willingness to suppress our own ego, it takes a willingness to want to be effective more than to be in the right (at least as we see it). taking the time to become an expert listener will reward you many times over, but it will probably be one of the most challenging things you ever learn how to do (I’ve got a ways to go on this one myself). 

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