This is an edited transcript of episode 145 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We look at two elements - Collaboration and Reflection - of the Heart of Agile approach developed by our friend Alistair Cockburn, and illustrate how conscious and attentive listening and reflection on emotions make a big difference for agile teams.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Editor’s Note: I recommend familiarizing yourself with the image in the ‘Heart of Agile’ tweet linked above before continuing.

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. Before today’s topic I want to say, we’re going to be doing some work around our conversational dojo material. We’re going to be both revising and expanding that based on the feedback that people have given us who’ve already tried it, and we’re looking into expanding that material, so we would appreciate your feedback.

Squirrel: Our friend Alistair Cockburn tweeted a picture, which is never great for podcasts, but which is linked in the notes. In true Alistair fashion, we’ve got a idea in visual form and we’re to interpret it.

Jeffrey: First, I want to set the stage a little because not everyone maybe equally familiar with Alastair’s career. Alistair was very early in the Agile community, he’s one of the signatories of the Agile Manifesto. In his work he consistently focuses on the importance of people. I’ve been following his work for two decades now, and he’s one of the people who helped me understand the centrality of humans and therefore shaped a lot of my approach. A few years ago, he started this distillation called ‘Heart of Agile’. He’s very much of the view that we’re not in a post-Agile world and in fact, most people out there who could benefit from Agile haven’t been exposed to it yet. He started to distil Agile to give people more of a sense that it’s not specific practises as much as it is values.

Squirrel: This is exactly what his picture is about.

Jeffrey: There’s various elaborations of it, but this one stood out to me. I hadn’t seen this from him before. The two extensions that are the most directly relevant to us are the top and bottom elements. What should you be doing to collaborate? Increase the quality of listening. If you want to improve your reflection, then you should pause, check data and emotions. And I like this because he’s describing a very short, tight cycle here.

Centrality of Humans in Agile

Listen to this section at 05:47

Jeffrey: So there are two things I want to talk about in this podcast. These are important elements for having the right dynamics in your Agile team. No matter what discipline you’re in these same principles still apply. I want to talk about why that’s important. But then I also want to recognize a potiential problem here in that, if you just tell people ‘listen better,’ they may not know what to do. So those are the two elements for me.

Squirrel: Tell us more about the first one, because I do agree with you, but I have a lot of thoughts about whether this is a helpful approach, which will come in with the second point.

Jeffrey: ‘Increase the quality of listening’ stands out to me because it’s something I typically start with in coaching. I find people have real difficulty because they are listening to the other people’s words, but they have this combination of cognitive bias which sort of filter what they hear. The first one is confirmation bias, where in a room with various voices giving different points of view we tend to hear the things that confirm what we already believe, and we tend to discount the things that don’t confirm what we believe. What people don’t understand is that that to listen well is an active state, with and without so-called active listening. The skill of active listening is where I’m actually reflecting back what I hear, and that’s a very important skill. But even just listening requires attention actively. This is one element that people are least likely to understand unless they’ve done deliberate listening practise. This is a topic that’s very alive for me, because this weekend I did something I had never done before: I participated in an event with the London Non-violent Communication Meetup group. I’ve been in that group for a while, but they had an open public session which they called Listening Hour. We divided into pairs of one speaker and one listener. And we would listen. The speaker would talk for four minutes. Four minutes is a long time for someone to talk uninterrupted, and it is a long time to pay attention. Only after we would reflect back to them what we heard, the empathetic response. What struck me was the amount of effort it took to really pay attention, to hear what they were saying, to listen to all the clues to what this meant to them. So not just what words they were saying, but what was the emotion? What was the real underlying message, the need they were expressing? It was a very immersive, engrossing prospect to listen to someone even for just a few minutes, and this is what resonated for me with Alistair’s diagram and the directive to increase the quality of listening. I thought ‘there’s a lot to that.’ There’s a lot of depth in practice to something that seems so simple. So that was the first element and response I had.

Squirrel: I also focus quite a bit on the quality of listening in my coaching. I’ve had a really interesting experience with a group of leaders who have not had a smooth and easy leadership experience, shall we say. And just having them say back to each other what they heard has had some tremendous effects in a brief period. For example, if you’re the tech lead and you’re having trouble collaborating with the product manager, then simply saying back, ‘I understand that you’d like my team to deliver on this feature by Friday’ can really unlock a lot of understanding and collaboration. You would think that you would need something complex. I have a client who does pre-grooming and post-grooming, you would think you might need that kind of thing.

Jeffrey: That practise you’re describing of saying back to the person what you’ve heard is one of the most powerful practises. Once in the London Organisational Learning Meetup we did this, where we had people say back what they heard using the same words. Just literally say back the same words. It really confounded people’s expectations that it would be annoying. They thought it would be sort of insulting, like someone was just parroting them. And that wasn’t people’s experience at all. Actually, they said it felt good to have someone say even their exact words back to them. They found it really validating, and part of what that did is illustrate how infrequently we hear back from people acknowledgement of what we’ve said. Normally people move on and respond with their own internal dialogue, out of their own world. I know for myself, I often think ‘I heard you say this thing in response to me, but I don’t feel like it responded to me.’ It’s more taking turns talking than responding. So even something that seems very simple like just saying back what you’ve heard can really do a lot to increase collaboration.

Emotions are Professional

Listen to this section at 13:20

Squirrel: That’s certainly what I found with the group I’ve been coaching. They’re really responsive to that practise and it is the sort of thing they haven’t done before. This past session we did together, one said ‘I had no idea you felt that way, we could have resolved so much if I had known that before.’ And because he was able to say back what he was experiencing, that unlocked collaboration that they hadn’t been able to do before.

Jeffrey: Let’s move on to the second part, reflect. This idea of pausing and checking emotions is something I really like. I think it’s very important to be thoughtful about the response, as we said for listening, and I think this idea of pausing and checking emotions is a step along that path. You were saying you had more thoughts here.

Squirrel: We’ll come back in a part two to this idea that ‘these are great concepts, but how the heck do you do them?’ That said I am a big, big fan of pausing and especially of checking emotions. I often see folks who have a lot of emotional pressure on them. Emotions are a huge contributor to unlocking and getting to collaboration. Again with that story I shared, the thing that the listener could do was to reflect back what he was hearing and specifically the emotions. To say ‘I now understand that you have had an emotion about what I’m doing for some time, that I had no idea about.’ You might be having a retrospective which seems to be going just fine, but as soon as you check the emotions, suddenly you discover something is off. A lot of folks think emotions don’t belong at work, that we need to be rational, we need to be sensible. I’ve heard that it’s not very professional for me to tell you that I’m angry, when actually, it’s tremendously professional. It’s a huge help. So I’m pleased that Alastair’s pointing this out here with a little more detail than saying retrospectives are a way to reflect. If they don’t have any emotions in them, they’re probably not effective.

Jeffrey: That’s a great point. You went with this a little different direction than I had thought about it, you’re talking about what emotions you picked up from them, I thought of this as a way of helping myself. What I had in mind here was the ladder of inference. This goes back to the listening, how we often aren’t listening attentively to what the other person is actually expressing. Certainly that includes the emotions. But similarly, we’re often blind to when we have a belief that we’ve formed. We have conclusions about the world and beliefs about what should happen next. We’ve often just skyrocketed up our ladder of inference. And we have this very strong feeling about what should happen next, about what’s true, but we can be very certain of that and not very aware of how we got there. So for me, this ‘pause, check your emotions,’ I think is an internal element. Before I speak, I want to reflect and say, ‘how did I get here? What am I feeling right now? What what feels at risk?’ I had a great example with someone I’m coaching looking back at several weeks of working together, he described the most important change in his own behaviour was he felt now that when he was in a conversation, if it started to feel difficult that was a sign for him. It was a trigger, or rather a tell that he should tune in to and say what’s going on inside of him. ‘What’s my own state? What am I bringing to this that’s making this difficult? How is my own internal emotional state, my own beliefs contributing to this being difficult?’ Because very often what makes the conversation difficult is our own fears that we’re not often aware of. Instead, it feels like the other person is just simply wrong. That pressure that you described earlier, this feeling that we’ve got to get something done now. That our own emotional state can be contributing to not listening or not articulating your own views, because the fear has made our world so narrow that we just don’t see other options. It’s just win or lose. I’m right. They’re wrong. Let’s just get this over with. Let’s make the decision, which is the right one that I want. It really takes away the space for the dialogue and the collaboration. That’s what I was thinking about for ‘pause, check data and emotions.’

Squirrel: Well, Alistair’s tweet is very good at triggering thoughts. I really want to talk about ‘motherhood and apple pie.’ I’ll explain that in next time. How does that seem to you?

Jeffrey: I think that sounds great. We talked about our intention to do future public dojos, and these are places where we get to practise these skills. So if you’ve listened to us and you agree with the need to check data and emotions, but don’t know how to improve, this is what the dojos are for. So if you’d like to know how to put it practise, get in touch and we’ll look forward to having you join us for that.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.