Coaching Skills for Scrum Masters ~ Deep Listening


The other day when working with a few scrum masters I recognized how important coaching skills are to this profession.  I know that coaching is important and I teach new scrum masters that they are the coach to the team.  But, when working with these new scrum masters it brought to light that coaching skills aren’t something that we just know – they are learned on purpose.

When I ask people about their coaching skills they often point to allowing the team to be self organized and make their own decisions.  They view coaching as asking questions that help people figure out the answers.  I agree.  Those are aspects of coaching that are very powerful for teams.  But there is an underlying skill that cripples the ability to ask powerful questions if it isn’t first mastered.  In order to ask powerful questions a scrum master must first learn to listen.

I am realizing that the most powerful coaching skill a scrum master can learn to master is listening.  It is foundational to everything else.

Level 1 – Internal Listening

As humans, level 1 listening is the one that comes most naturally to us.  This is listening at the surface level.  It usually manifests in conversations when someone is talking and you start thinking about what you want to say next.  You wait for the chance to speak.  Maybe you start sorting out in your mind what the next great question would be.  You starting thinking about what the other person said and start solving things in your mind so you can give them the answers.  Or you disagree and you start building your arguments for the other side of the topic.

In short, level 1 listening is all about what’s going on in your head and not really about what the other person is saying.  You only listen for what you need to formulate a response.  We don’t even realize that we live in this space 80% of the time unless someone specifically points it out to us.

When it is helpful:

Level 1 listening is not evil.  It can be great when problem solving and when brain storming.  It’s great if you are trying to learn and process information.  For example, right now I’m listening to a cool guitar solo and hearing each note and going over in my mind what the notes are and how I would play them.  What strings would I have to hold down and pick at in order to make those sweet sounds.  When would I have to bend the strings to get that cool wavy sound?  Level 1 listening is powerful and very useful.  But it can also cause us to miss so much if used at inappropriate times.

When it is not helpful:

When leading a retrospective – Level 1 listening can turn a scrum master into a task master.  They stop hearing what is being said and start solving the team’s problems for them.  They hear words and start solving.  They start driving to outcomes without recognizing what’s really happening beneath the surface.  They miss the real issues and hear only what is said.  Level 1 listening hinders the ability for the team to have real and meaningful conversations.

Level 2 Focused Listening

Level 2 is all about the person being listened to and not about you at all.  It is really focusing on the person’s words and hearing what they are saying.  It is not listening to respond, but rather listening to be curious and understand.  It’s forgetting about you and focusing only on what they are communicating..

When it is helpful:

Leading a retrospective from level 2 listening produces an entirely different result.  There is less talking by the scrum master and more letting the team talk.  The pressure to be the hero goes away and the team gets to be the hero.  Real interest in what the team has to say appears.  Asking those who aren’t talking for their opinions begins to happen, especially if we see a look on their face that tells us they have an idea or they disagree.  We let conversations play out and see where they take us rather than driving conversations to a place where we believe they should go.  Retrospectives become relaxed and exciting at the same time.  Collaboration becomes natural and facilitation comes more easily from a place of curiosity than it did from a place of directing.

Level 3 Global Listening

Level 3 listening is about total awareness.  When listening from this state you hear what is happening all around you.  You are aware of tension in the room.  You hear the breathing of someone next to you.  You notice how many times the person at the end of the table tapped their pencil and recognize that it is a sign of frustration.  You feel the excitement that is stirring in people.  You notice changes in tone of voice, speed of words, inflection, etc., that give insight into what people are thinking or feeling.  You notice the clock ticking, birds chirping, doors shutting, etc.   This level is hearing what people say and also hearing what they don’t say.  It’s seeing their facial expressions and body language and understanding it.  It’s hearing inflection and tone.  It’s hearing excitement and frustration.  It’s focusing on what the person is expressing and feeling beyond the words.

When it is helpful:

This heightened state of awareness is helpful for scrum masters in their every day interactions with the team.  It’s what helps them hear what isn’t being said.  Using level 3 listening helps a scrum master know what areas the team might need help resolving.  For example:  You might notice the quiet frustration of a developer working at their desk because you hear changes in his breathing or see him rapidly tapping his foot.  Seeing the changes in him allows you to question what’s happening to help him move forward instead of staying stuck.  It also helps the scrum master detect undercurrents in conversations – perhaps where there is an elephant in the room that everyone smells but no one wants to address.

A skilled scrum master should be able to weave in and out of level 1, 2, and 3 listening as the situation warrants in order to facilitate great conversations and serve the needs of the team.  Developing this skill is vital to developing expertise and perfecting our craft.

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