Analog tools for visible listening (or why I take hand-written meeting notes)

I believe one of the most important qualities in any leader is a well-cultivated ability to listen. As someone in a leadership position, I try to spend a good portion of my time in any meeting actively listening. I emphasize the adverb actively here because listening well requires effort. It’s not a passive activity. It’s a skill you can always continuously improve through repeated practice—there is no pinnacle of listening ability. You can always get better.

Part of listening well requires making it obvious to the other party that you are, indeed, paying attention. Of course, you can use body language to convey interest. Or you can employ verbal tactics like asking clarifying questions or injecting affirmatives throughout the conversation. But I believe it’s equally important to pay attention to your tools and environment because these too affect the quality of the interaction.

Consider, for instance, the simple act of taking notes.

I prefer to take handwritten notes during meetings, especially during one-on-ones. This is a practice I’ve maintained for years. (I enjoy using A5-sized notebooks with dotted paper.) Hand writing my notes helps me focus and improves my memory of the conversation. The act of listening coupled with the kinesthetics of moving my hand allows me to retain a much greater percentage of any conversation than unaided listening alone. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, but I’ve found that it is true for me.

I do revisit my meeting notes, but not often. And as such, I never feel compelled to digitize them. They don’t need to be searchable. An analog copy is more than sufficient.

But the other reason I stick with analog tools for note taking during one-on-ones is because digital tools tend to create both physical and psychological barriers between me and the person I’m speaking with. They make it harder to listen. Visible, superfluous screens—laptops, tablets, phones—always interfere with quality one-on-one conversation. They distract both parties and create an environment of reduced trust.

I believe there are at least two reasons for this:

  1. The privacy afforded by a screen, especially one not visible to all parties, erodes trust between you and those with whom you are conversing. Unlike a paper notebook, which lays flat on a table, visible to all, a screen creates a private space. It opens the opportunity for surreptitious activity, even if that activity is innocuous or in service of the meeting. The other party in the conversation has no real way of knowing what you’re doing on that screen when you’re typing away. Are you really paying attention or trying to quickly respond to an incoming Slack message?
  2. Screens are almost always attached to multipurpose devices that afford many more activities than simple note taking. This makes them inherently distracting. When using a screen to take notes in a meeting, there’s always the temptation to also do something else. Everybody knows this, which means the mere presence of a screen often prevents deeper, more meaningful conversation than if it were simply not there.

In a world where many one-on-one meetings are held at a physical distance, mediated by a camera and a screen, visible listening is a special challenge. Many of the physical cues you have in an in-person, face-to-face meeting get lost or become more difficult to convey. Still, even for remote meetings where note taking is necessary, I believe paper and pen reigns superior. During a remote one-on-one it’s always obvious when the other party is typing, or their eyes are darting around the screen, or brief flashes of light hint at the fact that they are opening and closing windows on the other end. You can tell when someone is truly paying attention, or is distracted by other things on the screen. Hand writing your notes eliminates the temptation to do anything other than listen. The mere fact that your hands are not on the mouse and keyboard helps. And even though the other party can’t always see your notebook, it’s often obvious that, when you are not looking at the screen, you are simply writing something on a piece of paper.

Of course, analog note taking is not, on its own, going to make anyone a better listener. But at least for me I’ve found that being mindful of my tools encourages mindfulness of my behavior, and that alone makes a small difference.