I was talking to Johanna Rothman at  PSL this year and I was starting to spin off into space when she pounded her hand on the table and said “Jason! I’m trying to ask you a question!

That got my attention.

I’m a raging introvert so when I won’t shut up, it’s usually about something I’m really passionate about or something I think I know a lot about. One of the objectives I set for myself at PSL was to learn how to be a better listener. I felt I accomplished that, or at least made substantial progress, and rewarded myself with the muzzle award for knowing when to shut up.

I don’t want this post too be too long so I’ll skip the examples where I channelled the image of Johanna pounding her hand on the table to keep me in line. Needless to say, I was more aware of my disposition and sense of knowing when to shut up than I was before.

Over the last few weeks after coming back from Agile 2011, I felt like I ‘gave up‘ a little.  In retrospect, I started to slip back into old habits of telling and not listening which wasn’t really helping me or the people in my life.  

My boss had reflected this back to me during a recent one-on-one so I’ve had some time to digest the feedback. More specifically, I thought about our one-on-one conversation and how much of it was us talking ‘at‘ each other instead of communicating.  We started well and I gave up my new listening skills early on which I think was the cause. Having said that, it was a productive chat, I feel it could have been better if I had channelled Johanna’s table-pounding image in my head.

I started looking deeper and another lesson from PSL started becoming clear. If you want to change anything, start with yourself.  I started thinking about bad conversations (work and home) and what problems I was facing and what of my behavior or lack of listening was contributing to those problems.

Today I set out to take those lessons and apply them. During my first meeting I caught myself interrupting someone 3 times. I caught myself early which I was proud of. I also used what I learned from Declan and Bryan’s ‘Pull conversation’ session at Agile 2011 to have better conversations with the people in the meeting.  I hope it helped, I felt better. I suppose I could ask them tomorrow.

Here’s how I would sum up what I learned with what I tried today (and what I like to preach to others about!)

  • It’s not about them, it’s about you. Once you understand yourself better, you will be able to interact with people better. I found MBTI very helpful in this regard.
  • Change starts with you first. You can’t, nor should you try, to control or influence people. I am using ‘influence‘ in the negative sense of ‘tricking‘ people, not ‘influencing‘ in the sense of persuading people that your idea is the best.
  • People are good and are doing the best they can with what they have, whether that be skills or external forces (ie: is a co-worker who you think is an asshole just somebody who’s a really passionate person or maybe they’re going through a divorce. You don’t know whats going on in their head)
  • Listen to people by reflecting back what they are saying. Use questions like “I’m not sure what you mean, can you describe an example?” or “I interpret that as ABC, is that what you mean or did I miss the point?“. There are many ways to ask “pull” questions but the point is that you may process information differently than the person who is transmitting, try and understand where they are coming from so your ideas and thoughts can converge.
  • I find this helpful, prepare for conversations ahead of time, especially if you are introverted. I need time to process information so my emotional response comes out first if Johanna doesn’t pound the table quick enough.
  • Find a technique that will help you stay focused, like my example of Johanna pounding the table.
  • Stop a conversation at the sign of trouble. I am still learning how to do this because dammit, I’m right and I have to prove to you that I am right! This is probably the weakest area of conversation skill for me.

Before this meeting I made a conscious effort to be aware of my state and how I was engaging in the conversation.  I also set some mental pointers about specific things I wanted to improve on.  One of them was not interrupting.  The other was staying engaged by making a note of my physical posture.  When I felt like I was dis-engaging, my body language gave me queues and I corrected it.  I’m sure this probably sounds nuts, but I ended up thinking “posture matters, sit up…” in my mind.

I’ve been struggling with a closing paragraph for a good 15 – 20 minutes.  If I could share one last thing from this post it would be that you are responsible for your personal development.  If you’re unhappy with the status quo, remember, It doesn’t need to be this way.  Change yourself first, you’ll thank yourself when you realize how good it feels.