“Do The Words?” is a blog about writing at work. Some of the posts are about listening, though. Listening helps us write effectively, for at least three reasons:

  1. To have a chance of writing something relevant, we need to be tuned into our work and the people at work.
  2. The early stages of writing involve some listening skills, a kind of listening to an inner voice.
  3. Listening lets us know if what we wrote actually landed; if we got across our message.

And listening is something that many of us should do more of at work. Of these posts I write about tuning in, not all will have a direct, overt relationship with writing. Not everything needs a direct, attributable payoff anyway. (If you need convincing of this, Brian Lui has a couple of nice posts, painstakingly argued in a 2020s intellectual-web style.) I believe that as you get better at listening, your writing improves, causation or not.

There are all sorts of forums where listening happens, or should happen, at work. In big group meetings, logically the percentage of listening should be high, since only one person can speak at a time. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way though – there’s more hearing than actual listening.

For managers, a great place for listening is the one-on-one meeting with your team members. Hopefully you’re doing these regularly. And hopefully you’re using them for more than just project updates or other operational work details. They are a great chance to look beyond immediate tasks to what’s on your team member’s mind, and also what’s happening elsewhere in the business that might be interesting or useful to them (often something you’ll have more of a view of as a manager).

Still, most one-on-ones do start off more day-to-day. The important thing is to keep time to get beyond that level. Some employees, and some managers too, feel more comfortable staying on superficial or operational matters, but they’re missing a big chance to help the employees develop.

In every one-on-one meeting, you want to ask about the things the person has uppermost in mind, or their ongoing development. (Here’s a great thorough post on what should be normal one-on-one activities.)

But there are sometimes things that don’t really fit an agenda, or that your team member only starts to recognize during your chat. There could be a conflict with another colleague, or something at home. Perhaps it’s even some feedback about your own style as a manager.

These topics suit a one-on-one, but aren’t always easy to start talking about. Doing so requires a sense of space and a lack of expectation. When is a good time for that?

Think about other situations where there’s a sense of space and a lack of expectation. These don’t tend to be deliberately planned situations but times in between those planned situations. Do you ever find yourself at the end of a visit to a friend’s house, standing on the doorstep and talking with them for a while? Some of the best, deepest conversations you have with your friend might be at that in-between kind of time. The normal expectations of the visit have concluded – beverages drunk, achievements or family admired – and you are both free to go your separate ways at any time, yet you just carry on talking, in a zone out of the normal framework.

(Image from 1920s-1930s New Zealand, via PICRYL)

In a one-on-one meeting, that can happen near the end of the session when indeed the normal expectations have been met, the talking points talked, the top-of-mind things covered. Then, if there’s anything else on your team member’s mind, they might bring it up themselves. Or maybe you both are quiet for a little while – 10, 20 seconds. That silence doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing else on their mind. You can open the space up a bit. Maybe after a pause, ask “What else?” Then, sometimes, you’ll find there really is something else to listen to, something worth exploring together.

Your team member might start with “oh well, it’s nothing much but…” Don't jump in at that point. Just wait a bit, and listen.

One time, I asked this question, and heard about a concern that the design of a software feature was being directed too much by engineering concerns and could mislead users. I listened and asked questions, then came up with a possible solution to work with the technical constraint but guide users better. Apparently I hadn't listened for long enough though, because after patiently hearing my idea, the designer then told me about one she had already had – and it was both simpler and better than mine. In my eagerness to fix things, I hadn't realized that she had an idea ready. But it was fine in this case. All she needed was the confidence that she was doing the right thing – we agreed she absolutely was, and she then got the feature built to her design.

Another time, it was only this “what else” question that surfaced the overload that a team member was feeling. At that time we talked for an extra half hour to plan how to mitigate this and work on the root causes too.

Of course, sometimes there won’t be much else, and that’s fine. You don’t want to constantly dig, like a therapist who keeps probing for deeper suffering. But it’s worth creating the opportunity for other topics to arise.

There are good and bad ways to do this. Even a slight change of words, changing the question to “Anything else?” could shut the conversation down. (It seems to invite a “no” more than a “yes”.) With an impatient tone, even the more open question “What else” could shut down discussion or even sound prying or suspicious. You have the best feel in the moment for how to create space. Just don’t be tempted to jump in too quickly.

I learned this approach from a previous manager. Specifically, I learned from his example. We covered many great topics, often near the ends of our chats, and I learned so much from his coaching.

You won’t get to this level every session of course. But make sure you don’t go a couple of sessions in a row without opening up a bit of extra space. You might be surprised how well it works.

(I was reminded of my ex-manager's approach to open things up when I read in Ximena Vengochea's "Listen Like You Mean It" about the question "What else?" to explore more in user research sessions. She writes "By remaining curious even when we have a strong baseline of knowledge, we can deepen our expertise and in turn better get to know others.")

The making of…

I draft and plan these posts of course, sometimes rewriting several times. If you've signed up as a member and you're logged in (or you're reading the email newsletter), you'll see some of this process below. I've learned by seeing how others' writing and ideas develop over time, and I hope you'll get something from this too.

(If you're not logged in, you may see a box telling you that this post is just for members. Don't worry – you've already read the real post if you've got to this point! The hidden bit just has the drafts and comments on the process.)