On Frustration and Listening

Eric pointed out, in a comment on my previous post:

I think another key component is to make sure they feel like they are heard. This goes beyond letting them vent, and making sure that you can state back to them why they feel that the chosen course is wrong. Nothing is more frustrating and disempowering than feeling like one’s expertise (because every geek is an expert in his or her own mind) is being overlooked.

Once they believe that you understand their position, then you can explain the reasons why their position doesn’t address the other concerns of the company. They may not care about those concerns, but I think it does help for geeks to hear that there are reasons for the decision, even if the geeks don’t agree with those reasons.

To really get them on board may require several repetitions of this cycle.

And he’s absolutely right. I alluded to this a bit in my post On Praise, where I mention that the geek must accept the thought that she is not talking above my head. Another way to put that would be to say that it must be clear to the geek that I have listened to her and understood what she said.

So how do I make a geek feel heard?

Step 1: Step away from the Blackberry/telephone/computer. I know you’re too busy for words, but parallel processing while a geek is trying to talk to you is insulting to him at best. If you’re expecting a vital call, warn him early in the conversation that there will be a call that you have to take, and apologize. If you have to answer an email (or need to finish the thought you’re typing), ask him to hold on a moment while you finish your thought so that you can pay attention.

I used to turn myself towards my geek while I finished typing. It usually caused amusement that I could keep typing while looking at him, and gave me a chance to finish my thought. Oh, and if you must fidget? I’d ask if it was okay if I opened my mail while we chatted, or I’d play with paper clips or various office supplies. Some of us just can’t be still, I suppose, but don’t fidget with your Blackberry.

Step 2: Make eye contact. Okay; so your geek might not be pretty, or he might tend to stare at the floor as he speaks, but you should at least be looking in his vicinity so that he notices that you’re paying attention when he glances up. Besides, if you’re not looking at him, I’ll bet you’re looking at your Blackberry, aren’t you?

Step 3: This one’s classic: paraphrase back. If you don’t like sounding like you’re waiting for your pirate to give you a cracker, you might find that paraphrasing back via asking questions is easier. For example, “So if SP2 might break our document management system, which of your two avoidance ideas seems best to you?”

These are the three steps I’ve learned the hard way are effective for making geeks feel heard. I’m sure I’ve missed some steps and suggestions–I’d love to hear about them!