This is a transcript of episode 114 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Active Listening is very useful for normal conversations and meetings, but even more valuable when everyone’s remote. We describe the technique, give listeners a chance to practise it, and give refinements like the Active Listening Relay for group discussions.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So I assume that everybody is at home as they were last week? Certainly I am. Certainly Jeffrey is.

Jeffrey: Yep.

Jeffrey: And maybe maybe we’ll give them something to do on their on their one time that their able to leave during the day for. For exercise or shopping. Exactly. Yeah. That’ll be the podcast listening time.

Squirrel: Excellent. Yeah. That’s a good idea. I should be listening to more podcasts when I go out to walk the dog with the sheep who are seven hundred sheep who live next door to me. So the thought we had was that we might give people a tool to kind of exist in this remote only situation that that’s probably new to a lot of you. And the particular tool we thought we’d use would give you was active listening. Something that people have probably heard about before may not have applied. So, Jeffrey, how how would that. What is active listening and how would our listeners apply that in the world where suddenly we’re all using Zoom for everything?

Jeffrey: Well, that’s a good question. And we’re going to talk about active listening. And I think the way we’re going to discuss it with you and I have a shared reference, which is Dr. Xavier Amador and who we came across through his L.E.A.P Method, which the Leap is an acronym that he has for, which stands for. Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner. And the listening he has in mind is this active listening. So I’m specifying this because you’ll hear different definitions of active listening in different places. And this is not to say that any of those that are different from ours are wrong, that they’re just different. So what do we mean by it is what Amador described as sort of listening like a journalist you were. So you’re listening to what people say. There are word choices and then you’re going to you’re going to check it with them. You can say, so do I have this right? So so I have this right that in your view, there’s a lot of people now who are working remotely who aren’t used to it. Did I get that?

Squirrel: You got it right. That’s right.

Jeffrey: OK, great. And ‘That’s right’ is is what we’re looking for here. And that’s something that’s very interesting. This is in a sense, when you’re active listening, you’re testing back with the person to make sure that you understood correctly that you in fact, not just that you understood correctly, but it turns out that sometimes this is to make sure that the person spoke correctly.

Jeffrey: We often as humans, when we speak where were we have thoughts in our head and words come our mouth and they don’t always completely align. And so this testing it covers corrections for both problems that someone either omitted something that they meant to say or certain they didn’t know, words they didn’t quite mean, or that I missed something or misunderstood something. So this sort of listening like a journalist is we’re going for and that and that critical test there is when the person goes. ‘That’s right’. This is really interesting. This is it is a key word. It it says that, you know, you really it’s the validation that you’ve you’ve gotten it right. I came across the importance of using getting the words. ‘That’s right’. Recently from a book I read called Never Split the Difference, which was recommended to me by Alistair Cockburn. Just a few weeks ago. And in there, Chris Voss makes a big distinction between when you hear ‘that’s right’ versus ‘you’re right’.

Squirrel: Yeah. Because you’re not interested in whether you are right. That’s that’s not the important thing is that whether you have come out on an insight or you have got some new information, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that you’ve gathered what the other person thinks, and that’s that person’s thoughts and feelings and whatever they’re saying has accurately been transmitted to you, which is remarkably difficult. And we’ll do an example in a minute but one of the best things about the Amador video, which will we’ll also have in the show notes with Never Split the Difference and other things, is there’s a moment where he does this with a an audience member talk. And it’s remarkably difficult. He does it with several different people and none of them can say back what he said. Now, one other thing that’s difficult is that he is portraying a schizophrenic patient. So he’s portraying someone who is saying things that are demonstrably insane and literally insane. The person is not operating on the same plane of existence as the rest of us. That’s that’s where he’s trying to help them. And that’s that his focus is on helping people who have that kind of difficulty in that disconnection from reality.

Case Study

Listen to this section at 04:40

Squirrel: So they’re saying something like, ‘I don’t need any medicine. The aliens are sending the beams into our brains right now. And what we need to do is go figure out where their base is so that we can interfere with the beams and stop the imminent takeover of the world’. And that’s something it’s very hard to say back to someone, because large parts of it are not congruent with anything in your own brain. You may not be dealing people who are schizophrenic, but probably most of our listeners are not. But there are certainly. The same kind of difficulties where there’s something that’s in your brain and something that’s in their brain. And just getting it across from theirs to yours when there’s mismatches and confusions of language and they’re not completely clear about it is remarkably challenging. And so just getting that part right can be really useful. And especially in a remote world where suddenly you don’t have all the body language, you don’t have all the shared experience here. You have a box on a screen, which is that’s very much more difficult.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: It is much more challenging. And I really like that you go back to the sort of the extreme scenario that Amador developed this with. And that’s why I think it’s so helpful to us in unusual circumstances, because essentially it’s been tested in a much more extreme environment than we’re currently in. Hopefully, we don’t look at our colleagues as always, being schizophrenic and what they’re saying is not literally insane, although it’s interesting that when there’s a disagreement in a meeting, it’s very common for people to describe their colleagues and co-workers as saying things like that. No, I can’t. So I think that that’s just insane.

Squirrel: That’s nuts why would they think that.

Squirrel: That’s nuts! Exactly. That’s so even though that’s not clinically what’s happening, that’s often our reaction. And so that’s to me one of the reasons why this tool is so helpful. Because when you have that sort of feeling, you can say, well, first, let’s check that. I actually am hearing this correctly. And do I have it right? The funny thing is that people have a lot of resistance to this sort of active listening to saying back to a person what the other person just said using the same sort of key words. And there’s a couple types of resistance I’ve come across from people. One is that if they disagree, they feel like, well, if I say back to the person what I heard. It’s like I am endorsing what they said.

Squirrel: Yeah, I’d be agreeing that the aliens are are taking over the world. If I were to say it back to them or less nuts, I’d be agreeing that I’m skipping the tests is a good way of approaching our next release.

Jeffrey: Exactly. So, Squirrel, if I heard this right. You’re saying you’re recommending that we just stop our testing so we can make the deadline. Did did I get that right?

Squirrel: Yeah, that’s right, Jeffrey. Sure! I don’t think that.

Fears of Active Listening

Listen to this section at 07:27

Jeffrey: So people aren’t willing to test.

Jeffrey: And so they lose the opportunity to sort of test their alignment with people and and to build more of a connection. Because turns out, if you believe I’m listening to you, you’re gonna be more willing to listen back to what I have to say. So this is very useful. So that’s the first objection people have is I don’t want to say things I don’t agree with. And so, again, it’s this is where the frame of you’re a journalist at this point. The journalist doesn’t agree with the interview subject. They’re just making sure they heard correctly and that they recorded the facts correctly. And that’s where you are. The other objection I get from people is they say, well, this is gonna sound dumb. If I’m just saying back to the person what they’ve already said, I’m going to look like a moron. I’m going to I’m going to come across as really false. This is gonna feel really artificial. This is a very interesting objection. It’s one that we’ve actually tested in the London Organizational Learning Meetup. At one of the meetups, we were practicing this sort of technique and it’s something that David Burns described as thought empathy. When you use the key words back to the person and you’re making sure you use their words, not not your paraphrase. And so we tested this where we’d have someone, you know, we divide up into pairs across the room and a person a on one side would make a statement about something about how they felt and the other people would just mirror back as literally as possible exactly what they heard.

Jeffrey: And it was remarkably consistent result that when people heard back their own words, what they felt was relaxed. They just they said that it’s like tension drained from their body. It didn’t feel artificial. It didn’t feel weird. It was it was comforting. And that was an unexpected result for everyone in the room, that that would be the instinctive reaction. So there’s this perception we have of how it’s going to come across. But my experience might the tests show me that actually it’s very different. So this is what we’re advocating for people, is that they learn the practice of active listening and then we have some ideas about how to actually apply it. But but first, Squirrel, I remember you told me that you have a bit of a challenge here. You wanted to demonstrate what this looks like.

Live Example of Active Listening

Listen to this section at 09:54

Squirrel: Well, yeah. Well, let’s see if we can do it and let’s see if our listeners can do it as well. And unusually, this is one that you can do even if you’re driving or walking or somehow otherwise engaged. So this is one that only requires your brain and your ears. So what? Although it might require you hitting the pause about. So don’t do that if you’re driving, but we’ll give you at least a little bit of a break to try to come in. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to be a person who might be on your next Zoom call. I’m going to have a particular point of view and I’m going to share that point of view. And the interesting thing is to see whether you can actually say it back with all the elements that I include. I predict that our listeners will have trouble doing that. And we’re we’ll get a live demonstration. I haven’t told Jeffrey who I’m going to be or what I’m going to do. So let’s see if Jeffrey can listen like a journalist, if he can hit all the key points. It won’t be surprising if listeners can’t or Jeffrey can’t. That would be normal.

Jeffrey: Exactly. So this is be a test for me as well. Now, one thing I’ll say is I’m not too worried because what tends to happen is if I do miss something, as I say, back to you. If I don’t get exactly right. Odds are you’re going to correct me.

Squirrel: And that’s the whole point. So would be good if that happened, because that would give us a chance to demonstrate that it’s not always the other person who says that’s right and goes on. It would be most helpful to the other person said, no, he missed this bit. And you say, oh, let me try it again. And then you try to get all the elements. And then and only then do you go on to other steps like empathy and so on.

Jeffrey: So this is kind of no lose for me either. Either I get it. All right. And and I look like truly skilled or I’ve missed some things. And you correct me and we can say, oh, yes. And that was a great example of how it all works out.

Squirrel: Exactly. And that’s good news for listeners as well. So if you’re trying this in your next hang out call or whatever, if you don’t get it quite right, if you don’t listen and get every element, that’s good. That means you have a chance to improve your listening and improve your understanding. That’s the whole point. Cool. So here we go.

Squirrel: So we’re having a discussion about our development organization and how it how we’re handling it. I’m the CEO of the company. I’m not a software developer. And here’s what I have to say. You developers, you just don’t care about customers and you never listen to me. We need a product to sell and the market demands speed. You guys are just allergic to deadlines. You can’t give me anything that that I can sell.

Jeffrey: Wow. Squirrel there was a lot.

Jeffrey: But I want to make sure I heard you correctly that I have this right, that you’re and what you’re saying is that we developers that we don’t care and we don’t listen to you. And also that we just we’re not giving you anything to sell that what the clients really need from us is speed. And we’re not giving that. And so as a result, you’re end up with nothing to sell. Is that is that what you’re saying?

Squirrel: Well, yeah, except the part that you missed that’s really important there is that you guys just can’t even think about deadlines. I ask you for one and you say, ‘oh, yeah, maybe we’ll get it done.’ You’re never able to tell me any kind of commitment.

Jeffrey: That’s right. That’s right. You point out that we were almost like we were allergic to deadlines and therefore we’re never giving you a deadline even though you keep asking for one.

Squirrel: Exactly. That’s what’s wrong with you. So then then we might go on and have a discussion. Yes. I imagine you might have quite a different point of view, Jeffrey.

Squirrel: But that was a very helpful illustration. I forgot to have us pause, but I hope listeners had a chance to pause if they wanted to try that back again. Even so, even if even after you heard Jeffrey say it back. I bet if you pause the podcast now, you probably would still have the same kind of difficulty. Jeffrey did at naming all five elephants. You don’t care. You never listen. I need a product. The market demand speed. And you guys are allergic to deadlines. Those were the five elements. It’s hard to get that many.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And I’m going to guess that perhaps your rant there was inspired by a collage of conversations you’ve heard.

Squirrel: Absolutely.

Squirrel: I’ve heard this many times, as I’m sure our listeners have. And I’ll note also that the thing that people tend to leave out is the most that the thing that’s either least congruent with their thinking or that is most emotionally challenging. So and allergic to deadlines matched on both of those, because I imagine Jeffrey is very much not allergic to deadlines. So that’s not going to match very well with his thinking. And he certainly doesn’t think of himself as that. And also, it’s quite an aggressive negative emotion attached to it. So if I had just said, you know, ‘I’ve asked for deadlines and I’ve not got them’, that would’ve been one kind of way of expressing the same idea. ‘You guys are allergic to deadlines. You can’t give me anything’ is a very different thing. And it’s often the kind of thing you skip. That’s the kind of thing you don’t bring back in the active listening.

Jeffrey: Right. Yeah. So that was a well done that was a great example. I was not exactly sure, I had no idea we’re going to go with it. I was happy if I got four to five, you know, and we got five out of five over overtime. That’s really the point is that we can get there. It’s the dialogue. And part of the dialogue is to make sure that I have heard and I’ve picked up on what’s important to you, to my counterpart, and this skill we’re describing, we don’t just give people the skill of first we’ll say this is something you can practice with other people. You’re only going to get good with practice. So if you have other people who care about these things, you can you can practice them with exercises like the one that Squirrel and I just did where someone makes up a dialogue and perhaps inspired by your reality. And then people can practice listening.

Real Life Applications

Listen to this section at 15:36

Jeffrey:But I think we just want to give three examples of where people can apply these in the real sort of day to day of their work. You know, how can you bring this into your meetings? And we have three things in mind. And one is as a preplanned action in response to a tell. I think we described this before, but perhaps you can explain what we mean by that. Cool.

Squirrel: Yeah. So a tell is something that we lifted from poker. So in poker, you have a tool that gives you information about what the other person might be thinking or whether they’re bluffing or something like that. A raised eyebrow or hand on the forehead or something. And similarly, their words or actions or situations that when you see them, you say, ah, this is the case where I’m not listening very well. This is the situation. This is what happens usually when I could really use some active listening. And then you plan an action. And in our case, the action would be. ‘Can I just say back what I heard? Well, I heard you say’ something like that. And you had the example of Jeffrey just before he said ‘Oh wow Squirrel, there was a lot there. What I heard you say was…’ And he listed four things and then I gave him the fifth one and he said the fifth one. And then we went on. If that was a problem for Jeffrey, if he was having difficulty in communicating well with me, he might pre-plan that action as soon as he was saying to himself, ‘I’m lost, I’m confused’. For example, that would be yes, that could be his. Your tell could be something quite different.

Jeffrey: Right. it could be that I was angry. You know, I feel attacked. By this CEO, it can be many different things. It’s probably for myself that each person will decide what when they know that this might be useful for them. When do you feel like you get a bit out of control in the conversation? Are those things that tend to happen again and again? You know, you probably won’t think that. The problem is here’s the part where I’m not hearing them or here’s the part where I’m not listening well. It’s actually the part where, you know, I mean, conversations where I get angry. And I want them to be better or I get confused and I want them to be better. It’s that it’s that part where, you know, that the conversation kind of goes wrong. And that’s when I can bring this in. Well, help me slow it down. Help me check to make sure I have it right. And then we can move on. So that’s that’s the first use case of this is the sort of a pre-planned action in response to an internal tell. The next place I recommend people use this. And this is it can be a bit more tricky, but it can be useful as a facilitation technique. Now, this works best when you have explained this to everyone on your team, everyone in the meeting. So you can bring this up, this idea, or you can send them this podcast. You can share with this idea of people of active listening and then say, look, I think that could be helpful if we can agree that we will, when we see an exchange between two people that one of us can intervene and say, ‘look, just before you answer, can you see back to that person what you think you heard?’ And this can, this might happen sort of self facilitation like this is essentially what you’re doing with a tell. If I’m speaking, I might say, look, before before you respond, can you just test with me what you think you heard? So I might do that if I feel like the the response isn’t quite aligned with what I’m expecting. But I’ve used probably the most when I see two other people, and this I think a lot of times in a group meeting, there might be two people who are sort of going back and forth. If you’re one of the people in the audience, you have the ability from your perspective to just say, ‘look, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. Before you finish replying can you just test what you think you heard back’. And that can often be a very effective way to help the whole group conversation, because it helps make sure that everyone is on the same page about what’s being discussed. And typically between two people, if, in fact their disagreements rooted in misunderstanding, you can save yourself a lot of time.

Squirrel: Absolutely. And that’s a nice one. Where in that particular case, as with the example you and I did, you could do that. Whether or not you’ve done some preparation with the people, you could say, ‘could you just try that?’ It is more helpful, as you say, if you’ve prepared ahead of time and said, ‘hey, everybody. We might try this active listening stuff’ that you could be intervening as kind of as a facilitator there to say, ‘Hey. I think you might not be understanding each other. Could you try saying that to each other? What what you heard.

Jeffrey: Now, our third and final example may be one that actually kind of brings together multiple good elements for remote meetings.

Jeffrey: And so the idea here is that often in a group meeting it can be when we’re all distributed and we’re all in different parts of the internet that it can be difficult for people to fluently take turns. Now, this could be true even in a room where for all there together there, we might have the problem that some people are more talkative, that they’re faster on their feet and they are more likely to speak up and other people are a bit more reticent. And it could be a worse meeting if you have just a few people dominating and a lot of people in the room who never get a turn to speak. but this is exacerbated, the same problem of everyone having a good turn taking is exacerbated when you have the latency in the internet coming in. It tends to even more exacerbate the problem where the people who are willing to speak end up interrupting the people and you get the sort of imbalance. So that’s the first problem we want to address. And then we want to overcome the other problems we mention with active listening, which is to say, can we know that we’re actually speaking about the same thing that we’ve heard correctly? Spoken correctly. And so to to help with this, we have done something in the group facilitation exercise, which I think Squirrel, you came up this and I think I like your name better, which is the Active Listening Relay.

Squirrel: Yeah, it’s kind of like a relay race where you’re passing the baton to the next person. So what you do is in the group and probably wouldn’t work so well with 100 people, but certainly worked well with 10 when you and I tried it, Jeffrey. And each person turns to the person next to them if they’re physically together. If you’re remote, you might pick an order like alphabetical order, whatever order zoom puts them in on screen or something like that. So each person turns to a next person and says some information. Here’s on feeling about this decision we’re about to make. Here’s the information I have to share. Whatever it is that you’re discussing. And then before that person takes their turn, the first part of their turn is saying back to the first person what they said. So the first person might say,’ I’m feeling really scared about making this decision to pivot our company in the face of the the virus that we’re all facing.’ And the next person says, what I heard you say is ‘that you’re feeling scared’ then the person says ‘Yes, I’m feeling scared specifically about the decision’ the person says, ‘I hear you saying that you’re scared about the decision’ and the person says ‘That’s right’ And then that person, the one who just said it back to the first one, now takes the baton and says the next person ‘well I’m feeling really angry that we haven’t consulted our customers yet. I think that’s a terrible thing that we’re doing’. And the next person says, what I heard you say was… And so you go all the way around. There’s no debate or discussion of the topics except for each person saying back what the previous person said. The nice thing about that is it certainly gets everyone’s views on the table equally so. And it freezes the debate. There’ll be people who will be raring to go and say ‘no, no, no, that’s wrong. We’re not doing that. Here’s my point of view.’ They have to hold back and wait until they hear from everyone. And everyone’s point of view is clearly articulated and played back to them before, then the discussion can go forward.

Jeffrey: Yeah, this active listening relay. I think it’s a very helpful technique, especially in remote meetings to make because it does give overcome this problem of turn taking and it helps make sure that you’re getting the advantage of the diversity of people in the room, now in this case you were focused on emotions. Because I think this goes back to we were using the six thinking hats technique, which we’ve talked about before. And you were modeling is that we were doing the red or emotion hat, but it doesn’t need to be just emotion. It could have been something about what’s the most relevant fact. What you think is the most important thing for us to consider. If it was your vote, what would we know? What time would we have lunch? It could be many different topics that where you’re going around it is just this is a way to make sure that everyone’s clear who is speaking when they’re going to speak and testing that people are heard correctly. So it works. It works very well when you’re doing something like parallel brainstorming and six thinking hats. But I think it also works more generally with with whatever kind of information you’re trying to gather from the group.

Squirrel: Ok, well, if listeners are trying out any of these techniques on your next Zoom call or hang out or whatever it is that you’re using. I’m not sure. Do people, use Microsoft teams on a conference call? So I’m not sure, all the different methods that you’re using. These methods of active listening may be valuable to you. If you try them we’d sure like to hear about it. You know where to find us. It’s at It’s also where you can pre-order a copy of our book Agile Conversations, which is coming out in May. As far as we know, it’s on schedule. So get in touch with us there by whatever means you’d like to use. You can also find us on Twitter and lots of other places. So we’d love to hear from you. We also like it when you subscribe. So we’re coming out every Wednesday, at least as reliably as we can in these times. But we’re here regularly. We like when you participate with us. And you hit the subscribe button. We’ll be back again. All right.

Squirrel: Thanks Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.