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Agendas Make You a Passive Listener


I’ve developed a method of interviewing job candidates that I know frustrates the more process-oriented hiring managers out there. I do not come into a job interview with any questions beyond, “tell me a little bit about your background and experience.” I don’t have a checklist of behavioral questions. I don’t even have standard work experience questions that I ask of each candidate beyond that one question. I approach interviews this way for a very specific reason—and it’s not because I’m lazy.

When you ask someone a question and give them all your attention, it’s relatively easy to hear pieces of information that you want to follow-up on. You catch a couple of words that could make all the difference. You hear an anecdote from the candidate that might indicate more about them than the answers to 100 behavioral questions. But those small pieces of information only matter if you hear them and respond to them. This becomes a challenge when you have an agenda.

When you have a notepad full of questions you’re trying to get through, that’s what your brain will focus on. So even though you are nodding your head as the candidate answers your question, your mind is elsewhere. You will miss key pieces of information. You’ll miss the opportunity to dive deeper on something that matters so much more than “a time you had to deal with an angry coworker.” Even worse, you will ask questions that have already been answered. Asking a question that a candidate has already answered in the process of answering one of your other questions is disrespectful and a waste of both your time and the candidate’s time. It shows to that person that you are only passively engaged, and may impact the strength of the answers throughout the rest of the call.

Passive listening in candidate interviews is a problem, but it doesn’t just live in that domain. As product people, we must talk with customers and prospects. We must ask questions. When we do this, it’s important that we don’t come into a conversation focused too much on the agenda, or the passive listening will dampen the benefits of the conversation.

The goal in these conversations (whether it be a job interview you’re conducting or product research) should be to learn. You learn best through active listening and follow-ups. When the person you’re speaking to says something interesting that can provide further value if you follow-up on the response, follow-up. Seems simple, but too often, we simply move on to the next question in our checklist of questions.

Active listening is not an inherent skill. Fortunately, it’s one you can develop over time. I was not a great active listener early in my working life. Lucky for me, my first job out of college was in a call center. Outside of the script I had to read when answering a call, I didn’t have an agenda to get through with the person on the other end of the line. I generally had no idea what the other person was going to say. This forced me to be an active listener and to think on my feet. It forced me to drill into key pieces of information as I heard it.

I now use active listening in all conversations I have with customers, prospects, and even job candidates. But I can hear you shouting: WE HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENDA WHEN DOING CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS!

To that, I ask: Do you?

You need to have a general sense of the topics you want to cover, and depending on the stage of product development you’re in, those questions may be more or less focused on the actual product versus the market. In any event, I argue that you do not need a laundry list of questions prepared in advance. Instead, you need some high-level topics to cover. Similar to how I start an interview with a job candidate with a single question about their background and let the response carry me through the rest of the conversation, you can do this with product research.

Start with a few high-level topics, ask the person about those topics, but be sure to listen. As the person speaks, you’re going to hear nuggets of information that may not have come out if you were too focused on your agenda. Pull on threads and chase the white rabbit. The most interesting pieces of information are not in your notepad of questions, they are in the responses people give you without realizing they’re giving them to you.

The last thing you want to do when trying to learn is to rush ahead to the end. If you’re passively listening and just checking off each question you wanted to ask, you’re cheating yourself and you’re cheating the person you’re talking to. Give the conversation the attention it deserves and practice your active listening skills. Just try it once and see how much of a difference it makes. Go into your next product research call with no more than three high-level topics. Force yourself to listen and follow-up on the responses from the person on the other end of the line. Take notes if you must but do not allow the note-taking to distract you from the listening.

Satisfying the items on your agenda is not the goal. Education and insights are the goals.