What is active listening?
Active Listening means being deeply engaged in and attentive to what the speaker is saying. It requires far more listening than talking. Your goal as an active listener is to truly understand the speaker’s perspective (regardless of whether you agree) and to communicate that understanding back to the speaker so that he or she can confirm the accuracy of your understanding.
As a user experience content strategist, I work with designers and researchers to create apps and websites that are easy for everyone to use. I can’t control who looks at a screen I helped create, and I won’t be there when they’re looking at it, so I have to do what I can to keep them from getting confused, without knowing anything about them.
How do you use active listening into your mentor-mentee relationship?
At skysthelimit.org, we all do highly specialized work. That means we’re each hired to do a different job, but we need to work together. To do our best work, we have to have a mutual understanding. We have to be on the same page when it comes to whatever it is that we’re building. Two key points make this relationship—and all relationships, especially a mentor-mentee one—run smoothly: active listening and sharing feedback.
We all spend a ton of time talking, and we assume people hear us. And they probably do. But are they listening?
Now, you can’t just say, “Hey! Are you listening to me?” People will just nod their head because no one wants to admit that they weren’t listening to you. But then later on something happens, and it’s pretty obvious they didn’t hear you. Let me give you an example.
One of the things I do in my job is work on our style guide. A style guide is a document that helps people write the same way. It’s like a dictionary that only has words in it you need to know for your job, combined with some tips on how to write for our audience. That way everyone at eBay writes the same way. Consistency is key to any good user experience because it reduces the chance someone gets confused. Now, let’s say I update the style guide to say that every time a user makes a mistake, we tell them with red font. Seems reasonable, right?
One time I worked with a designer who was using orange for these types of messages. When I updated the style guide to specify that we use red, I mentioned it in passing while talking about something else. I thought that would be good enough. Well, it wasn’t, because this designer didn’t realize that what I was saying was going to affect their work.
If I had a common understanding with my designer, and we were working together and reviewing our work together, I would have noticed the message was still in orange, and I could have asked about it. The designer could have shown an understanding by responding, “So it sounds like you’re saying these messages should be red, not orange, right?” Then I have confirmation that the designer listened.
How can you share feedback?
Look, if I could offer any advice it would be to never take anything personally. But we’re not robots. We’re people. We’re going to take things personally even when we shouldn’t. And, we can’t control how other people will react to something we say, so even if we were robots, it doesn’t mean we would be speaking to other robots. But what we can do is position the way we say things to increase the chance people listen to us and take the feedback the way we would like them to.
Let’s use the message color example again. And let’s try two different ways to deliver feedback on the designer’s work.
Hey, I thought we talked about using red for these messages. Why are these still orange?
When you say it this way, you immediately make the other person defensive. You sound like you’re accusing them of doing something wrong, because you are. You’re making it all about you, instead of focusing on what you need.
Now, take a look at this example instead and see if you can tell a difference.
Thanks for laying out those messages for me. Can I give you some feedback about it?
You have to trust your partners want the same thing you do. That means allowing for more interaction in your conversations with them. If they say no, then ask when a better time would be. If they say yes, say something like “I noticed that the messages are all done up in orange. Can you tell me more about that?”
There are different responses possible here, but they can all get you to where you want to be. For example, if they said they thought that was the pattern, then now you know they didn’t hear you before about the color change, and you can respond, “That makes sense. It turns out we changed the pattern for these, and they’re supposed to be red now. Can you take care of that?”
So, the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are repeating yourself or giving feedback, try an active listening approach. It will help you see things from the other person’s perspective and can result in a more meaningful exchange.
To become a successful active listener you should practice restating, clarifying, reflecting and summarizing what the other person says. Restate the same information, using different words to more concisely reflect what the speaker said. Invite the speaker to explain some aspect of what she or he said. Relay what was said back to the speaker to show that you understand how he/she feels about something. Identify, connect, and integrate key ideas and feelings in what the speaker said.