PRODUCTHEAD: Active listening (communication toolkit #1)

PRODUCTHEAD: Active listening (communication toolkit #1)

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

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Being a better listener can improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate

Psychological safety partly depends on your team feeling they are being listened to

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As product people, we need to be particularly good at communication. But like many of the skills associated with product management, we’re just expected to be good communicators. Rarely do we have the opportunity to reflect on how we can become better communicators.

I’d like to share with you some techniques to help you achieve that. This week we’re going to look at active listening.

You may think you’re already a good listener (and you may well be). But have you ever caught your mind wandering in the middle of a conversation, perhaps triggered by something the other person said?

Or have you ever found yourself concentrating more about what you want to say next rather than listening to what the other person is saying right now? Two people may be speaking, but they’re not really conversing.

Or perhaps you find it difficult to stop yourself from interrupting the other person before they’ve said their piece?

I recently had the pleasure of listening in while Nel Mathams of Creative Coaching gave our Advanced User Research Techniques masterclass. One of the techniques she covers is active listening. I often find myself struggling to truly listen to someone, so I found her tips and suggestions particularly helpful.

I’ve included some further reading on active listening techniques for you in the links below, but here are a few approaches I’ve personally found quite effective. I hope they work well for you also.

Tips for better active listening #

1. Try to catch yourself when you find your mind wandering during a conversation, perhaps triggered by something the other person has said. If you notice it happening, park the thought and resume your active listening.

2. Internally acknowledge, then suppress your urge to respond immediately when someone stops speaking. Leaving a few seconds pause (take a deep breath at the same time) gives the other person time to continue speaking if they need to, and gives both parties time to think and reflect a little.

3. Take notes. You don’t always have to maintain eye contact to listen. Taking notes can help you to focus on what the other person is saying. I personally find mindmaps very effective for noting conversations because they allow non-linear note-taking.

4. Summarise back what someone has said to you to check you’ve heard and understood them correctly.

5. We instinctively answer questions when asked. To encourage the other person to elaborate when they’re asking you questions, instead reply with an open question, such as: “That’s really interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” Combining this with (4) can be particularly effective.

6. Practice letting someone speak to you for a whole minute while you only concentrate on them. You can nod and acknowledge what they’re saying, but without speaking. It will feel like a long time for you. It may also be a little disconcerting for the person speaking to you, and can be quite an intense experience for them.

7. If someone is explaining something visual, such as a diagram or a mock-up or something on paper or on screen, get them to use a pen to point to what they’re talking about, then focus your attention on where they’re pointing, not on their face. This can help to enhance your listening.

I found that active listening takes a surprising amount of cognitive effort to begin with, but it does become easier with practice. See how you get on :-)

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Active listening

Research suggests that we only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear, as described by Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. That means that when you talk to your boss, colleagues, customers, or spouse for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of the conversation.

Turn it around and it reveals that when you are receiving directions or being presented with information, you aren’t hearing the whole message either.

Hear what people are really saying


Active listening: techniques & examples for managers

High performing teams are managed by leaders who practice active listening. That is, they don’t just listen to hear what is being said, they use a variety of skills to understand the context of what is being spoken.

But perfecting this skill takes time and practice. And managers are busy people.

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a quick breather.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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