The 5 Levels of Listening: Which Does Your Team Practice?
I attended an Advanced ScrumMaster Class, and one of the exercises had the students form groups representing “consultants” and an organizers play the role of CEO. Each group had five minutes to present their plan to the CEO and address any questions and comments. Our group was last, which could have been an advantage, but we made a common mistake and ignored the value of our order in the queue.
My team thought that going last going last would give us some time to fine-tune our presentation and update our discussion points to reflect what the CEO said to the other teams. That didn’t really help. While we heard what was said and adjusted our presentation to reflect them, we didn’t really listen to the issues underlying the commentary.
Listening is an often-overlooked skill, but it is a powerful tool that can help you be more effective and to understand and solve problems. It will serve Scrum team members well to think about how they listen and how to do it better.
The ways we listen—and not listen—are detailed in the Five Levels of Listening model, which goes from most distracted to most focused. The first level, ignoring, entails not paying attention at all. Because ignoring is considered impolite or unprofessional, at work we often use the next two higher, though still insufficient, levels of listening when we don’t really care about what’s being said: pretend listening—acting as if we are paying attention, but thinking about something else—and superficial listening—focusing only on points that resonate with our current views.
Attentive listening happens when we are listening to the other person, but rather than concentrating on the deeper meaning behind the words, we’re deciding whether we agree with what’s being said or formulating our response.
During the ScrumMaster exercise, our group did a combination of pretend and superficial listening by thinking about our presentation while the other groups were talking and homing in only on the comments that touched on our talking points. What we learned added little to our presentation.
Ideally, we’d all practice empathic listening, where we try to understand what matters to the person who is speaking, delaying problem-solving and responsiveness until we’ve heard their story. Had our team done this, we would have been at a great advantage over other teams.
Ironically, one of the exercises we did before this one was empathy mapping, a technique for gaining a deeper understanding of a stakeholder’s needs. We didn’t make the connection because like many people, we had a bias toward action (developing our questions) over listening.
Listening does not seem as compelling as action, but it is one of the more important skills a Scrum team can develop. You can’t understand someone’s needs without attending to what they are saying. This sounds obvious, but like much common sense, it is not as common as we expect.
By understanding the needs and concerns of your customers and your team members, you can make better decisions, deliver better solutions, and build trust that will enhance future collaborations.