January 3, 2021

Don’t complete their thought

I’ve recently been thinking about why listening can be very difficult. One aspect that always comes to mind, a practice that is exceptionally difficult to give up, is the tendency to finish other’s thoughts. Here’s some similar scenarios to illustrate:

Meet Alice, a senior engineer on a team and Bob a recent addition on the team.

Bob: Hey Alice. Got a sec?
Alice: Sure Bob. What’s up?
Bob: I was trying to use system X and I run into problem Y. I …
Alice: Oh, must be issue Z? That concurrency bug surfaces from time to time.

This can go one of 2 ways. Either, Alice is on the money and has helped Bob figure it quickly.

Bob: Oh! Right! I hadn’t thought about that. Why is that?
Alice: My pleasure.

Or alternatively, Alice is off the mark:

Bob: I don’t think so. I’m seeing more of issue A.
Alice: I see. Must be the installation ordering!

In both these cases, Alice quickly concludes what issue Bob might be facing. With her wealth of experience on the team and deep knowledge of the systems, she is able to usually have a good idea what the issue is. However, in both cases, Alice unintentionally doesn’t allow Bob to complete his thoughts. What else could Bob have said about the issue? He, for instance, could have elaborated on the steps he had taken so far, and how he went about trying to figure out the issue. All this information could have given Alice more context and a better opportunity to coach Bob as he ramps up on the team even better. It also could have fostered more relationship building between them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen.

Cases such as this are very common. Let’s look at Juan a manager and Neda, an engineer that reports to him:

Juan: Hey Neda! How’s the project going?
Neda: The project is coming along well. I do have some reservations on it’s value to the company. It…
Juan: What aspects are giving you reservations?
Neda: The project will take Y months and at best generate Z in revenue. I…
Juan: That sounds pretty decent to me. This project has been a long time coming and will have impact around the company beyond revenue. It will…

Juan does a good job trying to understand the problem a bit better at the start asking a clarifying question. However, when he gets a whiff of what he thinks the issue is, he quickly jumps to address it, attempting to complete Neda’s thoughts.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to truly know what another’s thoughts are. We simply cannot (yet) read each other’s minds. If we don’t let others finish their thought, we risk souring the conversation and/or relationship: whether that means the other person has to correct us and redirect the conversation or that the other person resorts to not voicing their opinions.

We all have busy schedules and want to be efficient in our conversations. As leaders, we often are having similar conversations with many different people. So much so, that we usually know what the person is getting at”; it is very tempting to make the connections! The crux though, is that when we guess wrong, it can be disastrous.

So the next time you have the urge, pressing as it may be, to complete someone’s thoughts, hold your tongue. Let them go over what they think even if you’ve heard it all before. Before you respond, ask yourself, have they finished their thought? Are you about to complete their thought because you think you know what they are getting at? Don’t respond until they finish. With all the context they give you, give them that great response! They will appreciate you for it. If you really must, and can’t fight the urge, count down for 5 seconds of silence or try asking a clarifying question instead.

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