This part focuses on my takeaways from a book “Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone Your Communication Skills” by Nixaly Leonardo LCSW.

My reason to read it

I like to learn about technologies and how to deliver better quality software, which means this has been my main focus of personal development. While at uni I’ve read “How to win friends and influence people”, while it was interesting, I haven’t looked much into this topic since. My mum gave me at some point a book how to break uncomfortable silence and all I thought while reading it was that people can’t accept me being an introvert, while being one is perfectly fine. As you see, I haven’t given a lot of time to learn how to be a social butterfly. In fact I would often think that practicing soft skills is a way to silence my own unique voice and just pretend I’m somebody else. Maybe you are in a similar situation. Strangely, even if solving problems with computers and being in the zone lured us into writing code, working is completely different. We interact with people, they all have different opinions. I’m not perfect, while my colleagues like me and I’ve built many friendships at work, there are still situations where I have to improve. Plus the higher you want to go, there is more interactions with people required. You may have to resolve tension in the team, you may want to highlight potential issues in the system design or influence others. This is my reason to improve my communication skills. Very typical for me, where I learn things from is books. It’s a bit ironic to learn people skills from a book not by interacting with them, but let’s see where it leads me. I will write about books as I finish them, to share some of the information I found useful.

Active Listening Techniques. The book has 150 pages, big plus, it increases chances of finishing the book, it is focused and skips all the fluff. Perfect for me.

My key takeaways

It will likely differ for you depending what things you are already doing well. For every technique author gives an example of a conversation, which for me was very helpful, to understand it better.

Reducing distraction, especially with remote working I find myself often checking the phone or replying on Slack. That often results with me looking not engaged and my focus is not fully on the speaker. So while I’m busy, I’m now making sure I cut distractions. I will be honest, it’s not easy at first, but when you know why you are doing it, I’ve managed to stick with it most of the time.

Breathing technique, take a deep breath, hold it for 2 seconds, exhale with your nose while your mouth is a bit open, wait 2 seconds after releasing air and start inhaling again. That helps me feel more relaxed and the more relaxed I am, it’s less likely for me to be overpowered with emotions. I’m in charge.

Listening to a person not thinking what to say next. I find this advice extremely difficult when we are discussing technical choices. When somebody asks a question and other person is sharing their view, it’s easy to fall into a trap of preparing answer without paying attention to the conversation. That make us jump to a sentence before not addressing what last speaker said. That can alienate them. Thinking about our next sentence can happen also when we are talking with only one person. I have to keep an eye for it, I know I’m thinking too much during discussions.

Make sure you are not hungry and have good night sleep. As a person who is not sleeping well, that is definitely not something I can do overnight, but I really have to address it, especially as it affects how I interact with others. Maybe by being a better communicator, I will not have to overthink conversations I had during the day and enjoy a peaceful night? That would be nice.

Be aware of negative thoughts spinning. I often fall into this trap of my thoughts powering more negative thinking. That can result with creating a wrong opinion about the situation and what other person said. Paying attention what triggers it to stop this behaviour.

Putting your emotions on a shelf and addressing speakers emotions. It doesn’t meant to neglect our own emotions, but to keep in mind that other person has their own emotions which have to be considered.

The faster we talk, the louder our voice gets, the tone becomes nervous or aggressive, we seem annoyed or emotional. Being able to slow down and lower the volume can make us control better what we say and less affected. After all we want to have a conversation which will help us address our emotions and make us feel better, making sure we make progress. When emotions influence our sentences other people may become defensive or may no longer want to talk to us. Using silence allow listener to process what you said without feeling like you are attacking them. You can use silence while listening to give a speaker freedom to decide how much they want to share.

It’s important to observe the speaker to understand how they feel. Nonverbal communication gives us a lot of information about speaker’s emotions. It can tell us that now is not a good time to talk. It’s good to check first how the person feels, when they are busy or under a lot of pressure, it will be more likely for the conversation to not go well.

Words we use have a lot of power. When you give constructive criticism you want to focus on a specific situation not saying that the person always/never does something. Starting questions with “why” makes them sound like an attack. Rather than saying “Why do you want to use technology A? it will not work in this case.”, you can say something like “I’m wondering how do you plan to solve the problem in this case?”. You ask questions to tell other person about an issue you found but also make them analyse it without feeling like you attack their idea. I’m thinking paying attention to these details during technical discussions can make people more open and less attached to their ideas, if other approach is a better fit.

Parting thoughts

There was a lot more in this book, I shared here things which I remember after first reading. I’m sure I will go back to it and I will try to apply many of the techniques I’ve read about. While software engineering is a technical subject, a lot of discussions are about preferences, opinions and what problems you would rather have in your system. Making sure we can communicate in a team without a tension, discuss pros and cons of different approaches without emotions blinding our judgment, and understanding that everyone on the team wants to deliver good outcome, is important. Reading this book changed my view about the soft skills improvements. It’s worth working on, to make people enjoy every interaction, not only when things go well. I can recommend Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone Your Communication Skills.