8 Conversation Tips for Checking Your Understanding

Excerpted from Gil Broza’s book: The Human Side of Agile: How to Help Your Team Deliver

Think back to a time when you observed two colleagues in an important conversation. Did it appear like a true exchange of information and ideas, or was one person:

  • Interrupting the other?
  • Putting words in the other’s mouth?
  • Raising her voice if the other did not seem to understand something?
  • Checking her mobile phone?
  • Giving her planned answer, regardless of what her colleague said?

The two sides probably didn’t gain anything useful from this exchange. In fact, they likely hurt their relationship somewhat, because the impatient listener was not respecting the interaction. Her conversation partner might have felt frustrated, ignored, looked down upon, or annoyed.

The active listening technique is much more than basic manners (e.g., don’t interrupt, don’t raise your voice). With active listening, you demonstrate that you’re listening and verify what you think you heard. Use it to improve your conversations’ results, to enhance your ability to influence and negotiate, and to sustain long-term relationships.

In active listening, you focus attention on what the other person says, with both his words and his body language. The central tactic is that of feeding back the message. It comes in three degrees: repeating (using the exact words you heard), paraphrasing (using similar words), and reflecting (using your own words).

Suppose you are having a conversation with Vijay, a team member:

Vijay: “Our defect count has been trending up this year. I don’t think it’s a matter of testing better and discovering more defects; we’re simply introducing more than we’re fixing.”

You (repeating): “So you’re saying we’re introducing more defects than we’re fixing, and that makes our defect count trend up?”

You just demonstrated that you’ve paid attention to Vijay’s words, which invites him to contribute further:

Vijay: “I think that’s the reason. The code we develop each iteration is not perfect, but we’re so busy building new features, we don’t dedicate enough time to fixing defects from that iteration or previous ones.”

You might respond to Vijay’s concern at this point. If his argument isn’t clear to you, or you have doubts about its validity, you could feed it back to him:

You (paraphrasing): “Let me see if I understand. We’re paying so much attention to coding new features that we don’t have time to clean them up, which makes the defect count go up. Right?”


You (reflecting): “Hmm. So you’re saying that new development is out of balance with defect fixing, which is why our quality is going down?”

Repeating retains the most of Vijay’s original intent, while paraphrasing retains less, and reflecting may even lose it entirely. When you reflect a message, you inject your beliefs into it. In this case, you’ve posited that defects trending up means quality going down, and that maintaining quality requires a balance between new development and fixing. This might be quite different from Vijay’s intent, which is why it’s so important to voice your interpretation of his words before responding to them.

Active listening is suitable for many kinds of conversations. It is particularly powerful in emotionally charged situations, where it is extremely important that the other party know you are engaged, that she feel heard, and that you know what she is saying and thus are not responding to the wrong message.

To get the best results from active listening:  

Minimize distractions. Your phone, email, and open door are obvious invitations to interruption. If something repeatedly tugs at you (such as your mobile phone vibrating), turn it off and say that you’re doing that. If it’s the other person’s, ask him respectfully to turn down the notification.

Face the speaker. Eye contact (not staring) is best. If it makes you uncomfortable, at least have your body roughly angled toward the other person. Move away from your computer or other electronics. While looking downward or averting your eyes is hardly an optimal response, at least she will feel less slighted than if you were still typing on your computer.

Stay focused on the conversation. If your mind keeps trying to pull you toward other mental pursuits, don’t just check out mentally. Either force yourself to focus or gracefully back out of the conversation. You could say, “I’d like to give this matter the attention it deserves, and I’m having trouble concentrating right now. Can we resume this conversation in <a specific period>?”

Supplement your words with simple acknowledgments Nod for acceptance. Smile. Talk with your hands. Say “Uh-huh,” “OK,” “Hmm…,” or “Right.” Use “Interesting!” and “Really?” sparingly, since they have the potential to sound fake.

Use preambles. Before you feed back the message, say something that signals the feedback. “What I’m hearing is…,” “So are you saying that…,” “Sounds like you’re referring to…,” “If I understand you correctly….”

If you don’t understand what they said, slowly repeat it word for word. That will help you comprehend what the other person said or it will encourage him to rephrase.

Don’t prepare your counterargument before the other person has finished talking (even if she says more than you think is needed). Otherwise, you’re clearly showing that what she says isn’t all that important to you.

Offer the occasional recap. It can be quite useful to summarize your understanding of the conversation to that point. Don’t worry about taking longer to interact; making sure that you’re both agreeing to the same thing can be more valuable.

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