Become a Better Listener by Taking Notes

Team dynamics can make or break a meeting. Have you ever been in a meeting where people interrupt each other, introduce new ideas when they should be building on the conversation, and repeat someone else’s point just to be heard? These communication issues waste time and energy, and usually lead to more meetings to correct misunderstandings, reiterate decisions, or soothe hurt feelings and interoffice tensions.

But there is one thing you can do that can make a significant difference to improving the quality of time you spend in meetings: Listen. By improving the way you listen and understand others in meetings, you can make that time more productive by reducing repetition and misunderstandings.

If simply listening can solve so many problems, why is it so hard to practice? One reason is we’re listening to interrupt with our ideas or rebuttals. We listen so we can jump in with our perspective. Or we’re worried we’ll forget what we want to say if we listen for too long. We focus on our own communication, rather than listening to understand others.

Through my work with executive teams, I’ve developed a simple technique that can help anyone listen more effectively in meetings. I call it Margin Notes. You may already take notes during meetings, but unless you’re using them wisely to understand others and plan your response, you may still fall into the same trap of speaking before you think. Margin Notes allows you to think, process information, make connections between points of discussion, and ask effective questions instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

Here’s how it works:

  • Set your page with a wide margin and take notes when someone else is talking. In the main body of your notes, capture only what the other person is saying. These don’t have to be verbatim; just jot down the key points. You can accurately quote individuals later.
  • In the margin, capture your ideas, judgments, rebuttals, and questions to each of the points you’ve written down. By marking them to the side, you separate your own thoughts from what others say. It lets you set aside (literally) your own voice and gives you space to listen to others. For example, when your boss excitedly outlines idea after idea for a product launch, you might note in the margin, “Ask about budget” or “Remind about CEO memo.”
  • When you speak, only bring up items from your Margin Notes that haven’t already been addressed and are the highest priority, and cross them off as you go. If you’re unable to raise some topics during the meeting and the items are important to you, tag them for follow-up.

For example, Ari is chief of staff to Brenda, the CEO of a 200-person scientific organization that was struggling. Its main source of funding had been favoring its competitor, and some key people had left to start their own ventures. Tensions were high, and some of the remaining team members were trying to one-up each other in discussions. Others were desperate to take any action as soon as possible. The ensuing miscommunications, high-stakes decisions, and panic led to conflict and unproductive meetings.

Brenda gathered her direct reports to discuss how they might sharpen their efforts in the face of dwindling resources. Ari took these notes following the Margin Notes model:

Meeting notes.jpg

Ari assessed his Margin Notes and focused his questions during the meeting on the most important issues he had jotted down: What are the decision criteria for budget cuts, and should cuts be spread across projects, rather than cutting projects in their entirety? He waited until the end of the meeting to also ask about cuts in infrastructure and marketing.

Then, in a one-one-one with Brenda, Ari tackled some of his other concerns: “We’re an action-driven culture. Do we need to slow down? Do we lose possibilities by not questioning assumptions?” He also noted, “The team doesn’t question you; they just jump into action. Are we relying too much on your judgment alone? Should some of these decisions be passed on to others in the team?” Lastly, Ari observed, “I worry we may not be fostering a culture of healthy conflict. Jennifer seems nervous whenever Josh and John seem to argue, and tends to turn to your guidance.” There were also several points that Ari chose not to raise because they were low priority at the moment. He marked these comments, so if they continued to be an issue, he could raise them later.

Ari’s Margin Notes enabled him to make a considered decision on how to guide the conversation more strategically toward business outcomes, rather than further fuel the competition between John and Josh. He was then helpful to Brenda by reflecting some of the dynamics he observed in a separate meeting. This allowed Brenda to approach the next meeting’s agenda more thoughtfully and adjust her own behavior. Based on Ari’s comments about the team’s culture, at their next leadership team retreat, Brenda facilitated a discussion about their implicit cultural norms. They collectively brainstormed changes to become a higher functioning team during these lean times.

As you take these notes, don’t just write down the facts of the discussion. Here are some things to consider when taking Margin Notes so you can listen better:

  • Write down themes from your main notes. When you listen across topics, what is a common theme? How are they related to each other? What’s the bigger story they’re telling? For Ari, his observation about culture was one of these themes.
  • Capture questions and flag them to ask at the appropriate time. Ari held off on asking the question about cuts across infrastructure and marketing in addition to projects until the end of the meeting so as not to take the focus off the hard trade-offs that needed to be made on projects first. He also took some of the personal dynamics to a private one-on-one with Brenda, rather than openly critiquing other team members in the meeting. This helped him to avoid calling out or embarrassing his colleagues, while also providing an opportunity for Brenda to create conditions for better communication in future meetings.
  • Test assumptions. When someone makes a general statement for the first time in a meeting, examine it from all angles before considering action. Ari considered several assumptions about how the budget cuts could be implemented and whether there were ways to expand funds instead of simply cutting the budget.
  • Pay attention to what’s not said. There’s rich data in both what’s unsaid and what is said nonverbally. In Ari’s case, he noticed that no one asked questions or challenged assumptions; they immediately jumped into discussing specific projects and implementing the budget cut. What’s more, he observed some nonverbal behaviors. When John and Josh talked about their projects, they made eye contact with only Brenda and never looked at each other or other team members. It made Ari wonder if John and Josh were competing to lobby Brenda to consider the merits of their projects over others. He decided to raise this concern with Brenda separately so she could look deeper into these projects.
  • Be discerning about what you ultimately share. You don’t have to share everything from your Margin Notes, especially in a meeting setting. Ari simply asked three questions which shifted the tone of the session. He later followed up privately with Brenda about some of his other concerns, and noted some points that could wait until high-priority items had been completed.

Capturing others’ words helps you track what they’re saying, and by writing down your thoughts next to each point, you can ensure you won’t forget important follow-ups while still digesting the conversation. Allowing yourself to listen more deeply to meetings gives you the opportunity to connect the dots, present your ideas more convincingly, and get more real work done in meetings.

by Sabina Nawaz, HBR

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