The other day, based on a tweet from Tom Peters, I picked up Peter Drucker’s classic The Practice of Management. It’s intimidating how much pressure it puts on managers. So I decided to step back a bit to first principles: communication.

It seems obvious, but getting lost in all the technical details and distractions of a software project makes me (and probably all managers) forget that a manager’s job one is communication. So I picked up a different classic, Dr. McKay’s Messages: The Communications Skills Book.


Appropriately, McKay covers listening in the very first chapter. According to McKay, effective listening starts with the right intention, of which there are only four valid options: to (1) understand someone, to (2) enjoy someone, to (3) learn something, or to (4) give someone help or solace.

However, most of us listen with the wrong intention (he calls them pseudo intents) all too often. The wrong listening intention is usually a selfish one: we listen because we’re pretending to be interested, or we’re just patiently waiting for our turn to speak, or we’re just listening for just specific information we want, or whatever. Routinely avoiding these wrong intentions surely takes tremendous discipline.

Effective listening

Only after aligning your intentions should you then consider whether you’re effectively listening. For McKay, there are four steps to effectively listening: (1) active listening, (2) listening with empathy, (3) openness, and (4) awareness.

You’ve probably been admonished to be a more active listener for a long time; I have. McKay’s formulation is practical and actionable: (1) paraphrase, (2) clarify, and (3) offer feedback. It’s easy to employ, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard someone employ all three of those in one of my conversations — but then, I work with developers like you during the day and talk to little kids when I get home. Neither are known as sterling conversationalists!

Effective listening requires openness and awareness. Openness is self explanatory — you just need to have an open mind. Awareness in listening implies that you’re careful to listen to the assertions in what someone says as well as checking for congruence between what they say and how they say it (body language, intonation, etc.) Both of openness and awareness in listening seem common sense.

However, listening with empathy is sadly overlooked skill. Being empathetic isn’t something I’d accuse many programmers of, nor would I have any idea how to coach a developer how to be more empathetic, but McKay has a practical definition of “empathy” that I think even my alpha of alpha geeks can use. It means that we only need to remember that everyone is simply trying to survive and feel valued. When others say things that you’re having trouble listening to because it annoys you or upsets you (like a developer wants to some framework you think sucks), remember that they’re doing it for their own self preservation.

Blocks to listening

McKay also has a list of twelve blocks to effective listening. I love the characterization of these habits as blocks because even if you approach listening with the right intentions and even if you diligently work to be an effective listener, you can be “blocked” by the habits he cataloged.

I won’t repeat them here, but a few popped out at me as things I do or that I see other people do. For example, I have a habit of “advising.” This means that I think I only need to listen to a few sentences of what someone says before I’m launching into my ideas about how to fix it. This is especially true with software or project stuff, less so in my personal life (I think). I also witness this many times a day among software engineers. But we can’t effectively listen to people we’re you’re busy formulating a solution before they’re done talking, right?

Another example I see in others all day long (and I think I’m actually pretty good at stopping this myself on this one), is “identifying.” This is where someone will say something like, “I rode the Star Wars ride at Disneyland,” and then someone else just has to interject right away to talk about the line they waited in, and then someone else has to jump in and talk about the Fast Pass thing, and so on… Nobody gets to finish talking because we’re all so busy “identifying” our own experiences with what someone else said.

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