As a recovering product manager turned executive coach, I’ve found that there’s actually quite a bit of overlap between building and launching successful products and supporting individuals in gaining self-awareness and building leadership skills.
In both worlds, it’s critical to understand the system, have a solid strategy, be able to provide ongoing support, and measure results. But nothing has been more important in both product management and coaching than one’s ability to listen deeply. I only wish that as a product manager I’d had as deep an understanding of what listening is as I do now.
Why Listening Matters
We’ve all been in conversations where the person on the other side of the table is nodding in agreement and occasionally making small “uh huh” noises, yet it’s clear that there’s nobody home. Perhaps the other person is checking their phone in the middle of your story or just stares blankly back at you when you finish speaking. To be fair, we’ve all been that person too.
Our lives are busy and full. We compete with notifications, running to-do lists, and all of the other noise in the room. As a result, listening – real listening – very rarely happens. As a society, we are paying for this. We are disconnected from each other and loneliness and depression is on the rise. We think we are moving faster and innovating at higher speeds than ever before, but we are missing opportunities to create the products people actually need and the support they want.
As a product manager in an ed tech company, one of my jobs was to understand the challenges our end-users (teachers and professional development providers) faced. I hosted focus groups, observed them at work in classrooms, and conducted phone interviews to find out what they were up against. I’d voraciously take notes on everything they said or did, but I wasn’t really listening. I was capturing the words, but not the meaning behind them or the words that were not being said.
I remember a teacher saying that she felt overwhelmed by all of the paperwork she had. Thinking back, I remember her voice cracking and perhaps a tear in her eye, but I kept on documenting her responses before running to my next meeting.
What Listening Really is – the Levels
In the above example, I was technically “listening” to the teacher I was interviewing, but I wasn’t listening like I meant it. I was in “Level 1.”
Level 1: Internal Focus
We spend most of our lives in Level 1. It’s an internal focus on ourselves. When I was meeting with the teacher, I was thinking about what I needed to learn from her to manage my product line. I had a soft focus on what was next for me: another meeting. Me, me, me. Level 1 isn’t necessarily bad; it’s us tuning into our needs, wants, and emotions, which are critical for life. But it’s hard to hear the other person or develop a meaningful connection.
Level 2: First Date Focus
The second level of listening is the type of listening one does on a first date; you are hanging on every word the other person says. It’s as if there’s nothing else going on around you. In level 2, you are leaning forward and deeply interested in everything the other person has to say. You are asking lots of questions and digging deeper.
Level 3: Global Focus
In level 3, you are less focused on what the other person is saying and more intrigued by what’s happening in the space between you. Think of walking into a room and knowing that the other people have just finished an argument; no one told you they had a fight, you could just feel it in the space. In level 3, you are listening to what’s not being said and what’s going on all around you. If I had been in level 3 with the teacher, I might have noticed and asked about the crack in her voice. I might have learned that her biggest challenge had nothing to do with paperwork overwhelm, but was actually a matter of feeling disrespected by the school’s leadership and undervalued by the profession.
Listening like you mean it is about feeling with people. Listening is not about knowing what to say. Listening is about connecting. It’s about empathy.
Three Ways to Improve How You Listen
Now that you know about the different levels of listening, how do you actually become a better listener? The good news is that listening is a muscle we can constantly exercise and strengthen.
1. Ask Powerful Questions
The best listeners are curious, and curiosity begins with a question (and the letter “C”). There are two types of questions: those that elicit information and those that evoke exploration. We are very familiar with information questions: What’s the weather today? What time is the meeting? We are less comfortable with evoking exploration.
Contrary to what you might expect, powerful questions don’t have to be beautifully articulated. More often than not they are short – seven words or less – and typically begin with “what” or “how.” They are the types of questions that make you stop and say, “Hmmmm, I never thought about it like that.” They are the types of questions that invite reflection.
Think back to my teacher interview, when she shared that she was overwhelmed by paperwork. If, instead of ploughing forward, I had asked, “What’s hard about that for you?”, then what might have been different? Or even, “What do you wish was different?” Rather than walking away with a bunch of surface-level user stories that wouldn’t make much of a difference for the teacher, I would have begun to understand what was at the heart of her challenge. I might have begun to uncover something much deeper that would have brought me closer to my user.
Powerful questions are a step towards connection. When you exhibit curiosity and aren’t just trying to gather information, you can connect much more deeply. Powerful questions change the listening game.
2. Articulate Back More Than What You Hear
A popular listening “technique” is articulating back what you heard the other person say. This is helpful in two ways. First, you notify your listener that you are listening. Second, you help yourself take in the information. I’d urge you to take it a step further. When you’re listening at levels 2 and 3, you will also notice what they person is feeling, perhaps, what the person is not saying, and even what you are feeling as you listen. Try sharing some of that back with the other person.
Back to the example of the teacher who said everything was just fine. If I was articulating back more than what I heard, I might have said something like, “I hear you saying that everything is just fine. At the same time, I’m noticing that your arms are crossed and I feel as though there’s something that’s going unsaid.” I could even take it a step further: “My intuition tells me that you’re not feeling comfortable to say what is truly on your mind. Is that right?”
3. Stop Problem Solving
Product managers are trained to look for problems. What’s the market challenge, is it pervasive, can we come up with a solution that people will pay for. All good questions, but not good for listening. Find a way to shelve those for after the conversation. When you’re able to stop problem solving in the moment, you can put your attention on the person speaking, not on the problem trying to be solved. You will hear so much more.
Listening is such a powerful tool for product managers, and one that I wish I had cultivated earlier in my career. Listening at levels 2 and 3 can alter relationships, help you work more effectively across teams, ensure your user interviews are translating into valuable feedback, and ultimately enhance the life of your product.