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How can I improve my listening skills as a facilitator?

By honing your listening skills you will connect more deeply with your team, improve morale, and increase participation in meetings. Together, these benefits will serve not just your team but your entire organization.

Are you a Sponge or a Trampoline?

According to a study analyzed by the Harvard Business Review, a good listener/facilitator does the following: 

  • Encourages active conversations where questions are asked periodically to promote exploration and observation

  • Creates a safe environment where speakers feel supported and heard

  • Holds a cooperative two-sided conversation that is uncompetitive

  • Provides feedback and constructive suggestions on alternative paths to consider

  • Serves as a mirror; reflecting to the group what is said and providing clarity on the content discussed

The Harvard Business Review study suggests that “While many of us have thought of being a good listener as being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead...is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.”

3 Benefits of Active Listening 

Active listening establishes trust.

The most important benefit of active listening is that it will help to build trust and rapport among team members.. When the people on your team know you are listening to them without judgment they will be more willing to be forthcoming about issues, concerns, and ideas. Establishing trust is of particular importance in retrospectives as there are often challenging issues that stem from the latest sprint. 

Active listening prevents miscommunication.

Another important benefit of active listening is it decreases the amount of misinformation and miscommunication. When the facilitator and participants work to understand  the message  the speaker is trying to convey, and listen to all of the content before forming an opinion or response,  everyone will be  less likely to misinterpret the speaker’s intentions, make  assumptions or put a personal spin on the words. This can prevent confusion and costly mistakes in the future.

Active listening helps you understand your team and their needs.

As an active listener, your job is to really hear what team members are saying and to use the information to help everyone on the team improve. Active listening allows you to learn important information about each person’s biggest challenges, successes, mindset, emotional state, and ideas for improvement.

5 Strategies for Active Listening During a Retrospective

Listen attentively!

Pay attention- really pay attention-to what is being said. It may be tempting to provide a solution or finish the speaker’s sentence. Instead, stay silent. Listen to the entire thought rather than impatiently trying to provide your perspective. Don’t try to solve problems at the same time as you are “listening” as this takes away from your ability to understand what the person is saying and provide a relevant response.

Show empathy.

Imagine yourself in the speaker’s place.  This will encourage you to think from their perspective and allow you to better understand the emotional subcontext of their words.  During active listening you may eventually ask questions or offer suggestions or other opinions. However, you must first try to understand the speaker’s perspective and resist the urge to interrupt. Many people are guilty of  forming a response or counterargument while the person is  still speaking but this is not active listening. Retrain your brain to listen fully, then form a response. 

Pay attention to non-verbal communication.

Listen to the speaker’s words as well as their body language. There have been many studies on the  topic of nonverbal communication with varying results. However, most experts agree that 70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. In order to provide the best chance possible of understanding the speaker, remote meeting attendees should be required to have their video on because the tone of voice and the words can only provide part of the story. Hand movements, facial expressions, and body position can help the listeners interpret the spoken words more accurately. 

Demonstrate that you’re listening.

Try to make eye contact with the speaker and react to their words authentically to show the speaker that you are engaged with what they are saying. For example, if the speaker says something funny; laugh. If they sound angry or annoyed, you may naturally knit your eyebrows. Another way to show you are listening is by asking follow-up questions or paraphrasing. 

Paraphrase whenever you can.

Paraphrasing has both a calming and clarifying effect. It reassures the speaker that his or her ideas are worth listening to and it provides the speaker a chance to hear how others are interpreting his/her ideas. Here are some examples of how to paraphrase

  • “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” 
  • “This is what I’m hearing you say…”
  • “Let me see if I’m understanding you….” 

The facilitator then restates what was heard and  asks a question to see  if the paraphrasing was correct.

  • Did I get that right?
  • Was that a fair interpretation? 
  • Tell me if that sounds correct.

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