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The Art of Listening

Megan Woolley

Senior Test Analyst

discusses different types of listening.

7 March 2018

The Testing, Agile & DevOps Showcase North took place in Manchester last week. Having attended last year, I had high expectations for the content of the presentations and I wasn't disappointed.

The agenda for the day included speakers from across the Test, Agile and DevOps communities. All presentations demonstrated techniques and approaches to help improve working practices in the Agile and DevOps environments.

Stephen Mounsey, an Agile coach, presented a talk on 'Listening: An Essential Skill for Software Testers'. The outline was as follows:

Are you really listening? Listening is an important skill for any human being but, for a tester, an essential skill. If part of testing is about information gathering and interpretation, listening is a key component.

A look at the art of listening, parallels drawn between listening theory and how we test.

Although Stephen presented this from a tester's perspective, his ideas can also apply to any collaborative Agile or DevOps team.

I would have thought, listening is listening, but Stephen talked about several different types of listening - I was particularly interested in Expansive and Reductive Listening.

A quick Google search defines Reductive and Expansive Listening as:

  • Reductive Listening is listening for the bottom line. We want the speaker to get to the point and let us know what's needed. We listen to find the solution, fix the problem and move on. This is listening that is results-oriented. It's an important type of listening, but can leave a speaker feeling frustrated or unappreciated if we are too anxious to get to that bottom line.
  • Expansive Listening is listening with someone. In this type of listening, the listening itself is the journey. It is the point. This is creative listening, chatting for the sake of connection, brainstorming or listening without an agenda. Expansive Listening may do nothing more than help create trust and goodwill between communicators. Of course, Expansive Listening may take more time than Reductive Listening, so we need to be prepared. Both types of listening mentioned above are important, but should be used in different types of meetings and contexts.
Type Goal/When Behaviours
Reductive Goal: Closure 'What are you recommending?'
When: Decisions need to be made 'How long will that take?'
Action is required 'When can we expect an answer?'
Expansive Goal: Explore Ideas 'What would that look like?'
When: Brainstorming 'How would it be if we..?'
Envisioning the future 'What if we had unlimited resources?'
Creating new possibilities

I never knew listening could be so interesting! Although this is only a snippet of Stephen's talk, I took away a wish to read further into the art of 'Listening'. Stephen's final quote was from the Dalai Lama: 'When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.' I had not heard this before, but it is succinct and, to me, represents a key collaboration tool used by successful Agile teams, of which testers are an integral part.

Listening is important, but more crucial is the type of listening you are doing. Are you using the right kind of listening in the right circumstances?

Megan Woolley is a Senior Test Analyst at Aquila Heywood, the largest supplier of life and pensions administration software solutions in the UK.

Further Reading