« Scott Nonnenberg

First, listen

2016 Dec 20

The year is coming to a close, and what does that mean? It’s time to start thinking about what the next year holds. Resolutions! Maybe a whole new approach for the year! But before you get into those particular weeds, let’s talk about a good attitude to start with…

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Listening to have an effect

Every software contract I sign onto starts with a statement of work describing what I’ll be doing. It helps set the context, but it’s only a start. I only get the details once I sit down in person with project stakeholders, or start digging into the code itself.

This was never more true than when I went back to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for a second time about a year ago. The statement of work in this case was the very generic “check in on our progress over the last 12 weeks.” It was clear that I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about the team and the project - as fast as humanly possible.

So I started to listen. I sat quietly but attentively in lots of meetings. I paired with people on coding to get a feel for their mastery of the technology. I made time for every question I was asked, because questions were particularly useful in telling me where people were in their learning curves. I listened both for the words spoken and what those words suggested, especially in the aggregate.

The longer I was there the more the balance swung from listening to speaking. Only near the end of my time there was I ready to give my recommendations to their more senior people.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (Habit #5, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

The importance of listening

Imagine for a second how ridiculous it would have been if I had walked into SSA with a set of rigid marching orders developed before I got there. Or pulled out a book and told them to follow the book exactly. Or pushed them to bring their bug find/fix rates, lines of code per dev per day, or overall velocity in line with some sort of industry average.

I wouldn’t have achieved anything. I might have made them feel bad, or maybe just angry. Either way they would have rebelled, and I would have lost all credibility.

The need to listen first makes so much sense in that context, but it’s hard to remember to do in other contexts: Everyday situations with coworkers. Friends and family.

Are you really listening?

“Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” (Larry King)

Your future self

Now, back to thinking about 2017. You probably want to come up with a comprehensive new plan to make 2017 awesome. Specific, measurable, actionable goals.

But it turns out that your current self and your future self are different people. As time goes by, you change, and so does your perspective. Your current self’s well-intentioned 2017 plans will feel arbitrary and constraining to your future self the same way that my plan just walking in the door at SSA would have felt to those developers.

So what’s the right way to come up with a plan? Well, how might we use that same ‘First, listen’ principle when setting personal goals?

My suggestion is this: if you’d like to improve a certain area, first gather data. Once you have a baseline you can start making small changes:

  • Finance - instead of all of a sudden starting a new big budget, just watch your habits for a while. Then make small, incremental changes.
  • Fitness - whatever your chosen metric (weight/bodyfat percentage, fitbit walking distances, run distances, etc.), start by simply watching your natural behaviors for a time. Then make small adjustments.
  • Nutrition - try keeping a food log before making any diet changes. You’ll probably discover a couple small beneficial tweaks you could make. For example, try replacing your afternoon snack with something better instead of dropping it completely.
  • Career - It’s tempting to focus on that next promotion, or a new job entirely. But right now, start with paying close attention to how you spend your time.

Starting with a reasonable baseline is the closest we can get to a scientific approach, since there’s no control in real life! Your starting data will naturally provide the seeds of improvement.

“We can never make people do anything.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

Go forth and listen!

To get people to change, you have to make them care. You have to make the thing you want worthwhile for them. And that same math applies to your future self as your current self plans 2017. Consider changing your approach this year: commit to measuring focus areas instead of ambitious outcomes.

“Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” (Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned)

That’s really the key, isn’t it? As you are changed by that process of deep observation, you will know the way forward.

Always listen first.

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Posted: 2016 Dec 20
Tags: goals, ideas
On GitHub: posts/2016-12-20-first-listen.md


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It's me!
Hi, I'm Scott. I've written both server and client code in many languages for many employers and clients. I've also got a bit of an unusual perspective, since I've spent time in roles outside the pure 'software developer.' You can find me on Mastodon.