Listening: The Forgotten Side of Communication Competency, Part I

In the second post in this series, Scott explores how to master a variety of specific listening skills. And in the third post, Scott looks at a further set of skills that will enhance and refine your communication competency as a systems engineer.

Communication is on everyone’s list of crucial skills for success in any endeavor. In the field of systems engineering, a number of studies and competency models include communication and its component skills as important and often neglected keys to professional development. The definition of systems engineering calls on us to be both “transdisciplinary” and “integrative.” That is only possible through collaboration and communication.

The INCOSE Competency Framework includes a set of “Professional Competencies” as part of its picture of the competencies necessary for the successful systems engineer. First in that list is “communication,” which is defined as “the dynamic process of transmitting or exchanging information.” Other professional competencies include “negotiation” which calls for “dialogue between two or more parties . . .” as well as “facilitation” and “coaching and mentoring,” all of which depend on communication for their success. Communication is also integral to many of the framework’s management and technical competencies because it is critical to developing and applying what we know by sharing with and learning from others.

Still, we most often think of the transmitting side of communication when we think of communication skills—speaking, writing and presenting. But that’s not all there is to communication.

The purpose of communication is to share meaning back and forth between a sender and receiver, or among multiple senders and receivers. On a systems engineering team, this meaning conveys vital information about the problems and solutions that confront us every day. Although it is the critical aspect of communication on the receiving end of those exchanges, listening is often overlooked or completely forgotten.

The job of listening is to capture meaning. That meaning is created by the sender with the intention that it will be received. How well the receivers capture the sender’s intended message determines the success of the communication. While the sender has the responsibility for transmitting the message as clearly as possible, the receiver has an equal responsibility to capture the meaning as accurately as she can.

In spite of this dual responsibility, when we talk about communication skills, we most often talk about the transmitting skills—speaking, writing, presenting. In this article, however, the discussion will be focused on the receiving or listening side—the forgotten side—of the communication equation.

Meaning is transmitted on a variety of channels available to the sender. Meaning may be transmitted across verbal and nonverbal channels and must be received in whatever form it was transmitted. Some of the transmission channels are used intentionally by the sender, while others are used without conscious thought or awareness. Failing to receive any given channel means missing the meaning transmitted through that channel. That makes the message received an incomplete and perhaps, an inaccurate version of the message sent. The implication is that the listener must listen on all channels with all senses and listen not just for the words that are spoken, but to the surrounding signals as well.

Obviously, the words of the message are important and it is critical to hear them accurately. But, there is more to be received beyond the words themselves. Our sense of hearing captures meaning not only through the words that are perceived, but also through the tone and inflection with which they are spoken. The sender may be transmitting not just the message contained within the words of message, but may be signaling additional meaning through the use of tone, inflection, and volume in the voice. We will refer to these as “extra-verbal” channels to distinguish them from the “non-verbal” behaviors that carry meaning and are assessed visually.

The structure of the message itself may convey meaning. It may be that the sender does not intend the message to be understood by directly decoding the words sent, but has, through the use of some artifice such as humor or sarcasm or allusion, expressed a thought different or even contradictory to the words on their face. In this case, the listener must rely on his knowledge of the sender, her social and cultural context and her usual patterns of communication to inform the discernment of the intended message.

In addition, the sender may be using body language such as posture or facial expressions to transmit non-verbal messages. Such messages can and should be picked up by the listener through the sense of sight. It is important not to go overboard on this channel. There is a lot of popular literature around non-verbal behavior, not all of which is grounded in good research.

Sometimes these nonverbal or “extra-verbal” messages transmitted by the sender may be intentional and designed to reinforce the message. At other times, the additional communication can be unintentionally added to the words and might even contradict them. In any case, it is the responsibility of the listener to receive all of the messages transmitted by the sender whether intentional or not and in whatever form they are sent. (NOTE: The average listener is well advised to stay away from the intricate subtleties of the television detectives and stick to the more obvious and unmistakable messages. But, considered in the overall context of the message, these behaviors can provide valuable clues as to the real message being sent.)

The first responsibility of the listener then, is to listen with all of the senses, including the interpretational senses around our knowledge of culture, psychology, and of the sender. In that way, we can hear the totality of what is being sent, whether intentionally or unintentionally. By receiving all channels, we can get an accurate picture of the communication.

Listening Roles
Once you have all your senses tuned to your listening channels, it is important to stop and consider your role in the communication relationship. Your particular role as a listener does not affect the quality necessary to bring to your listening, but it does affect the ways in which you will apply the tools and the tools which you will select to apply.

Sometimes your role as listener will be in connection with a counseling role in the relationship. It might be in a situation where a younger colleague is seeking an understanding ear to help them sort through a work dilemma. Or it may be an older coworker struggling with a decision to change jobs or retire. Whatever the case, this role will call on you to adopt a non-judgmental stance as you listen. The psychologist Carl Rogers, the original proponent of person-centered counseling, called this “unconditional positive regard.” In this type of relationship, it is the role of a counselor to assist the person in coming to realize the answers to the questions troubling them. It is not the role of a counselor to supply those answers from outside, but to let the counselee come to a realization of what they need to do. That means that it is very important to carefully choose the tools and techniques to be used in listening and reflecting what is heard.

In other situations, the listener is in the role of a sounding board. Many people think best aloud. Articulating their ideas helps them to explore their own thinking. They are looking for someone to listen and only perhaps, to give feedback. In this role, the primary job of the listener is to facilitate the sender’s articulation of her message. As with other roles, the listener’s awareness of the nature of this relationship should influence his choice of listening tools.

Very often listeners are engaged as participants in a discussion. Systems engineers find this arising in their teams where discussions take place among team members from a variety of disciplines. In this situation, it can be tempting for the listener to engage in formulating their next response rather than giving full attention to what is being said by the sender. In multi-sided discussions with more than two participants, this temptation can be particularly easy to fall into. We’ve all been in team meetings where people seem to talk past each other. This is often a sign of listeners who are giving their attention to responding at the expense of listening.

That temptation is even more exaggerated when the sometimes-blurry line between discussion and debate has been crossed into a pure debate situation. As an advocate for a particular position, the listener becomes primarily concerned with formulating responses. This can rob attention from listening in order to provide mindshare to the advocacy role.

At other times, the listener may be called upon to be a facilitator of a discussion or debate between two or more parties. This role requires that the listener adopt a balanced stance, one that is impartial among the participants whose discussion is being facilitated. As a facilitator, the systems engineer has a responsibility to ensure that the team is focused on solving the right problem, and this requires that the input from each participant gets full consideration by the team. To fulfill that responsibility, it is critically important that the facilitator listen carefully to the explicit and implicit messages being transmitted back and forth among the participants and see that each one has a chance to be fully heard and considered.

Regardless of the role played by the listener in any given communication, careful attention to the role and its unique requirements is necessary in order to properly choose the right listening tools and use them to further the purposes of the listening role. In a collaborative work environment, it is particularly important to understand our role and to become good at listening.

Once we understand the need to listen on all channels and are comfortable with our role in the conversation, we can turn our attention to selecting and applying the tools of listening. You may be surprised by how much more effective you are.

Next time: In our next installment we will discuss some specific skills and approaches to better listening.

For another look at the importance of communications to systems engineering, take a look at this blog post: The Systems Metamodel and Communication.

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