Learning to listen more empathetically to others could make all the difference—for our organizations, our individual work, and in our personal lives. We simply learn more when we listen more, and it is the best way to form the kind of connections we all crave.
Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection by Ximena Vengoechea, Portfolio
Ximena Vengoechea is what you might call a professional listener. A UX Research Manager with a career based in Silicon Valley, her job is “to uncover a specific set of insights that will ensure [her] team is building a product that’s actually useful—not just one they assume has potential.” So, she has a lot of conversations in which she is mostly asking questions to uncover and understand other people’s experience. It is a far cry from most of our professional conversations (or even our personal ones, for that matter).
How many times have you been in a meeting when someone suddenly interjected with a “You know, it would be great if” idea that completely derailed the conversation? How many times have you done it yourself? I must admit that I do it too often. Because, while we all like to get our own points across, in most meetings the most important thing to do is determine accurately what, exactly, is happening now and understand how things are really going or working for others—not how we want them to go. And you can only understand that through listening to how people are really experiencing the world, or your product, or the project they are working on. Only then can you understand how to make it work better for them.
That is not to say we shouldn’t speak up for ourselves, and others, and our ideas. We absolutely should, and sometimes it is our primary responsibility to be that person. But the best way to lead a conversation, to connect with and be of service to others—whether it be your customer, coworker, employee, or boss, whether it be a friend, spouse, or child—is to really listen to them.
Even (or especially) when in a position of leadership, it is more important to ask the right questions and listen empathetically than to offer what you think might be the right answers. The ability to listen is more effective than what we usually think of as “communication skills” (that is, the ability to make ourselves understood) when it comes to our success in communicating and connecting with others. And our overall understanding of a situation (or lack thereof) often comes down to what we miss more than what we think we hear—a reality made more acute by how we live and communicate in the modern age, which makes cultivating our ability to listen even more important. As Ximena Vengoechea writes in her new book:
It’s easy for us to learn only part of the story, or misunderstand it entirely. Miscommunication can escalate a neutral situation to a negative one, and make an already negative situation worse. Whether our misses are big or small, when they happen, we may walk away feeling detached and isolated from others rather than connected to them. At a time when our relationships are increasingly mediated through devices that lack the warmth and honesty of a face-to-face interaction; when we are moving farther from home, and more frequently; when our social ties are weaker, our anxiety levels higher, and loneliness is on the rise; in a culture of self-promotion, overwork, and political and racial divisiveness; and in the midst of unexpected global crises that keep us not just culturally but physically far apart from each other, we need to feel connected more than ever—and listening provides a way forward.
To tune into others requires tuning into ourselves first, to know our own interests and proclivities and to be aware of our own reactions—emotional, mental, and physical—in the moment. Even when we are not particularly interested in a topic, we can remain present for those around us if we can find but a small piece of the topic at hand that piques our personal interest. We also need to understand how a particular topic might trigger us because of our personal history or opinion, and how that might affect how we show up in the moment. For instance, being a receptive listener means remaining in a receptive posture physically and remaining in control of that even when we’re uncomfortable can make all the difference. “In times when we can’t control our thoughts,” Vengoechea counsels, “we can control our body to help us return to the present.”
I am reminded somewhat of something Jennifer Romolini wrote in Weird in a World That’s Not
[N]o matter how heart-thumpingly anxious you feel, no one knows how weird it feels inside your head. As long as you don’t say “Let’s burn this motherfucker down!” or run through the room wearing zero pants, no one is noticing all your weird quirks. Everyone is distracted by their own stuff.
That is obviously more severe than what Vengoechea is suggesting. People almost certainly are noticing your weird quirks if you’re in a one-on-one setting. The point is, not being super interested in a topic, or even put off by or uncomfortable with it, doesn’t mean that the conversation must become contentious or be relegated to the superficial. There is still a human being there you can connect to, something you can find to learn from, even if you don’t agree with what they are saying or see things the same way. Which brings me to one of my favorite suggestions in Vengoechea’s book:
Assume you are in the presence of an expert. Understand that others’ lived experience gives them a unique expertise. This can help us to accept and respect their perspective, even when it is not like our own.
We don’t have to let difficult conversations defeat our own self-control. At the same time, showing up with some humility and being receptive to others does not mean we need to be receptive to abusive behavior or speech if it ventures into that territory. It simply means we must be open to the possibility that the preconceived notions we bring with us to a conversation—especially about the other participant involved in it—are not entirely correct and could be completely wrong.
Being curious almost always beats being in control, and that means opening up and letting others speak. In Vengoechea’s work, it makes all the difference.
In research, the stakes are high: if I interrupt a participant, I may never get back the opportunity to learn what they actually wanted to say or do.
And it could make all the difference in our work, too—and in our personal lives. We simply learn more when we listen more, even when we believe we are on the same page as someone else. We may get excited when we think we know where someone is going with a thought, to the point we want to jump in and finish it for them. It feels to us like we are connecting the dots and connecting with them, but it easily can and often does backfire when we get it wrong. Instead of forming a deeper connection, it can instead bring an abrupt end to the conversation. Instead of showing them that we know and understand them, it interrupts our best chance to get to know and understand them better.
Because we remember the overall idea—and especially the emotions—of a conversation better than we remember the details, Vengoechea suggests we reserve time immediately following important talks to record our own thoughts. That way we aren’t distracted by taking notes while someone is talking, or interjecting constantly to get our own words in edgewise. The details are important, and there are inevitably important ones we will want to record, but we don’t need to feel like we need to record or respond to each one, or we will risk missing the forest for the trees. So don’t interrupt, interject, or try to interpret others. “Above all,” Vengoechea writes, “focus.”
But she will also help you understand when you should probably stop listening to others if the relationship turns toxic over the long-term. If you come to find someone is employing you as their crutch and the relationship becomes a one-sided dump of negative personal feelings or professional frustrations, you are probably no longer helping them by listening, and only making yourself feel worse. She also teaches us how to cope and recover when we have engaged in difficult conversations that expose us to the real and deep trauma in others’ lives and in the world.
Listen Like You Mean It offers all the conversational tools needed for companies and individual researchers to conduct successful user conversations, but more importantly it teaches us the power and skills of empathetic listening to become better colleagues and bosses, better spouses, parents, and friends. What we really want from others is that they just listen to and understand us. We should make our best effort to do that for others. Because if we want to be of service to anyone, the first thing we need to do is listen to them.