Listening: The Forgotten Side of Communication Competency, Part III

This is the third post of a three-part series on listening. The first post reviewed the INCOSE Competency Framework’s definition of communication, and discussed basic elements of listening that can help one be more effective in one’s interactions. The second post explored a specific set of listening skills. This final post looks at a further set of skills that will enhance and refine your communication competency as a systems engineer.

In our last two posts in this series, we discussed the process of listening. With the importance of collaboration in systems engineering, we would be well-advised to place a premium on active listening skills, as they are a key to the effective communication which is the foundation of successful communication. It is important as we develop more of the techniques involved in listening to remember that the purpose of listening is to receive and understand the content that the sender is intending to convey. Every technique that we employ should serve to promote our understanding of the sender’s message.

Avoid interrupting
One principle that we should keep in mind as we listen—particularly on the first pass—is to avoid interrupting the speaker. We all form our messages with our intended meaning in mind, and the listener should listen not just for the words that are spoken, but also for the way they are put together by the speaker. When we interrupt, we break the speaker’s flow, which can alter or even destroy the train of thought that is being expressed. We are listening for content, form, and structure of the expression, which all hold significant clues to the thoughts that make up that content.

Once we have heard the sender’s message and it is clear that they have “spoken their piece,” it is appropriate to begin to take a more active or reciprocal sending role in the dialogue. The first way that we approach this is through the use of questions. Questions play several roles in good listening.

Make wise use of questions
The first purpose of good questions is to show that we are paying attention and are interested in what the sender is saying. When we ask a question that is clearly tied to something the speaker has said, the message is, “I heard what you said and I care enough about it to want to be sure that I have heard you correctly.” The question shows the sender that you are hearing what is said and you are interested in hearing more.

Such questions often take the form of “clarifying” questions. They are commonly framed as, “You said “X.” Could you say more about that?” They invite the sender to offer more insight into the thinking behind the message. This particularly helpful in technical conversations where the discussion is often nuanced and complicated with a premium on accurate understanding.

A close cousin to the clarifying question is the “eliciting” question. Used when the speaker has obviously stopped short of complete sharing on an issue important to understanding the message, these questions let the sender know that the communication space is safe and that the listener has a genuine interest in the important but, as yet unspoken, aspects of the message.

It is important to remember that questions are tools to promote the listener’s understanding and sharing by the sender. Questions asked to box the sender into a specific message or expose some perceived flaw in their logic do not meet the purpose of developing a shared understanding and have no place in an authentic search for meaning. But, when constructed with the search for understanding in mind, questions can be the listener’s best friends.

Validate your understanding
Once the listener has reached the point of feeling that an understanding of what the speaker has to communicate has been reached, it is time to validate that understanding. This is done through reflection. Reflection means projecting back what the speaker has expressed. In technical discussions, this must be factually correct and true to the sender’s content. However, there is still more to the message than the articulated words and phrases of the message. The unspoken aspects of the message must be considered as well.

When reflecting the speaker’s message, it is most helpful to reflect both the articulated message and the unspoken signals. This means reflecting all channels. The sender may have said something that has one meaning on the surface but a slightly (or greatly) different meaning when considered together with the unspoken signals sent alongside the words. In an extreme example of this, witnesses on the stand in a trial have been known to deny something while at the same time nodding their heads in affirmation of the facts being denied (or shaking their heads in an unspoken denial of what they are asserting). Reflection—artfully composed, of course—can bring this out.

You might say something along the lines of “I know you said that ___. But, I couldn’t help but notice that you were very uncomfortable with what you were saying. Can you help me understand why that was so?” You are reflecting their nonverbal expression of discomfort and giving them a gracious way to explain or mitigate their spoken message. This serves the purpose of getting at the real meaning behind the message.

Use reframing to test your understanding
Another way of responding to the sender’s message is by testing your understanding through reframing. In this technique, you restate what the sender has said as faithfully as you can, but in your own words. While you can’t be inaccurate in your reframing, you don’t want to simply “parrot back” exactly the words the sender said. You are checking your understanding and validating with the sender that you have heard what they really intended to say.

The reframing process is typically iterative. You reframe the sender’s message and validate your statement of what you heard with them. If there are departures from the sender’s intent, you can delve into them with questions until you feel you understand. At that point, you reframe again and revalidate your new statement. Pursued honestly, this process will quickly lead to an agreed understanding between sender and listener. This is a powerful point in any conversation!

Be aware of pitfalls
These techniques—focused listening, good questioning, reflection, reframing—are powerful, but they are not without dangers and traps for the unwary. There are several warnings that would be good to consider as we use them.

The first is to avoid forming opinions and judgments, especially early on in the dialogue. My boss in graduate school had a large cross stitch on the wall behind his desk that said, “Look before you leap, the conclusion you jump to could be your own!” Although it was rumored to be a warning from his wife, it conveys a measure of truth that should remind any listener that leaping to conclusions can easily come at the expense of the purpose of the quest for understanding. A better response to a statement from the sender that invites some conclusion about the message or, worse, the motives behind it, is to ask, “What would cause a well-meaning, rational adult to say something like that?” This powerful tactic advances, instead of harms, the purpose of the dialogue.

Skilled listeners also avoid steering the conversation or offering (unsolicited) advice. Both of these come from conclusions that are taking shape in the listener’s mind. They emerge and signal the sender that the listener has already come to some opinion or conclusion before hearing all of what the sender has to say. As we said in the previous posts, all of our techniques must come from a place of authenticity. That means that it is more important to actually avoid forming those conclusions than to just try to avoid signaling them to the sender. That way the conclusions will not emerge in the form of steering the conversation or inserting your opinions in the form of advice.

It is tempting to learn techniques and reduce them to a checklist or recipe for “successful” listening. But it takes lots of practice with the techniques and a commitment to what is behind them for them to work in actual practice. Senders can spot inexperience or inauthenticity. When I was first learning the techniques of negotiation, I would practice them in conversations with my boys at home. With the special insight of preteens, they could see what was happening and more than once responded, “Don’t try that hostage negotiator stuff on us!”

These communication techniques and many others we haven’t had the space to discuss are powerful and can be used to promote the values of good communication. They work in actual practice. In fact, my greatest fear as a tactical team negotiator was not that I would be shot, but that I would be put into a situation where I was compelled to use my skills to maneuver some mentally ill or delusional person into a situation where they could be easily killed in order to neutralize their threat to others. That was not a prospect I relished, but I knew that the skills we were taught were powerful enough to make that happen.

Years later, I also know that applied skillfully and ethically, these techniques can be used just as effectively to improve communication and promote understanding in our workplaces and homes.

For more on becoming a better systems engineer through communication, read Let GENESYS 2020 R2 Amplify Your Model Communication.

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