Listen up! Improving listening skills and awareness
In school, we are explicitly taught how to read and write and how to speak, but we are just assumed to know how to listen effectively. In our work lives, speaking is considered contributing to the work, but listening is undervalued. Advice given on good listening habits is often very high level and general. To be effective at user experience, though, we have to be excellent listeners in a variety of situations. Karen shares how to raise this skill up to the next level to become more effective at listening in all the ways our work demands.
LISTEN UP! IMPROVING LISTENING SKILLS AND AWARENESS As someone who is not naturally a great listener, I’ve been exploring ways to improve my listening skills for many years. As a UX researcher, I recognize that listening is a critical skill for me to master. However, I’ve found that a lot of the advice is not very specific about what to change to improve listening. It goes beyond just being quiet or taking notes. And not all advice for attentive listening is equally applicable in every listening situation. So I’ve compiled some of the research and guidance that I’ve found helpful in the hopes that it can help others in their journey to become better listeners in work and in life.
“TWO EARS AND ONE MOUTH” I’m relieved that not only am I not the only one who recognizes that listening can be challenging, but that good listening is something humans have been working to improve and encourage for thousands of users. When Zeno was teaching and speaking around 300 BC, however, students and peers learned by oral tradition. Taking notes, recording a lecture, or watching the YouTube video simply weren’t alternatives. The only possible alternative was listening carefully to someone who had heard Zeno directly. The need to listen attentively (and retain that information – although that’s skill to discuss in itself) was essential to education, social and political discourse, and other situations. Today, we have other communication options that have diminished our ability to listen. For Zeno and his contemporaries, the act of hearing and the skill of listening may have been more synonymous activities than they are today.
HEARING AND LISTENING Hearing and listening are not synonymous activities. Essentially, hearing is the way to take in input, while listening is the way to process input. The International Listening Association (yes, there is one) defines listening as follows:
“Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.” (1996)
The good news inherent in recognizing these differences is that listening, like any critical thinking and analytical activity, is a skill that can be practiced and therefore improved.
LISTENING DEPENDS ON MORE THAN JUST THE HEARING SENSE Julian Treasure, an expert in sound and listening, describes how he is working with a school teacher to instruct children to be better listeners by using their “eyes, ears, and heart.” Ears hearing the sound is just one sense engaged in the listening process. Others that can contribute include:
* Visual: body language and a way to focus our attention; vision can also apply to techniques like “visual listening” (for example, picturing the speaker even if you don't know what the person actually looks like) or reading transcripts or notes as a way to review for comprehension * Touch: note taking, an act that can increase retention and comprehension * Heart: empathize as appropriate, understand purpose and motivation
Research has shown we learn better when more than one sense is engaged. The same applies to listening, an essential skill for learning.
HOW WE LISTEN Philosophers and even physiologist have long know that everyone has their own way of perceiving the world. To take one example, the shade of green I see and call “green” may not really be the same shade you perceive. You may not even have the same concept of green. Studies of cultures that have different language and cultural emphasis on colors have shown variations in ability to even perceive certain colors (one example is a study with the Himba of Namibia: http://boingboing.net/2011/08/12/how-language-affects-color-perception.html). So it’s not surprising that Treasure notes in his work that listening is unique to each person. We all bring our own mental models to listening:
* Our own internal barriers of bias, habit, and culture * Different listening approaches and attitudes * Varied “perceived reality”
The important lesson is to recognize what your unique listening is. That will help you understand what you might do to change or improve your skill.
We also have several types of listening. Active Listening is a familiar term. Treasure uses the term “conscious” listening, which evokes the idea of mindfulness that is truly critical to listening success. He goes on to describe three types of conscious listening:
* Inner: That “little voice” in our head that can poise a barrier in a listening context and need to know how to manage it. - Be aware of that inner voice. - Do not assume that voice is you (for me, it’s definitely sometimes my mother). - Be in charge and recognize that you don’t have to listen or obey the inner voice. * Outer. This is what we usually consider normal listening - Understand that while we spend 60% of our time hearing and processing sound, we only retain 25% - that’s indicative of the problem. - Different tools are available in outer listening: Pattern recognition, differencing, and others. - Conscious listening creates understanding, the doorway to connect us to the people speaking. * Created. This is the most unique types that Treasure identifies. "You are a listening for others.” - Become aware of you unique listening. - Make the choice to set aside the filters and manage barriers actively. - Take responsibility for the listening - don’t only prepare for speaking or writing. - Practice listening
Another type of listening I’ve seen in my research is something I’ve labeled “focused listening.” In a course for ESL students, Gabby Wallace shares that people new to the English language may need to focus on key cues for what is most important in any spoken content. I think this type of listening is important to those of us in the UX field because while we may share the same language as our users, we have such fundamentally different perspectives and knowledge much of the time. The adage “you are not the user” applies. We need to humbly accept that we may not truly speak our users’ exact language, even if we understand the dictionary definitions of terms they use. Some techniques to consider in focused listening:
* Looking for what Wallace calls “content words.” Words that are stressed or serve in certain parts of speech – often nouns and verbs – provide clues to what is significant to the speaker. * We need also to listening to the silence and consider words that aren’t said. For us, is this something to explore, something the other person just takes for granted, or something that simply is not a priority to them.
LISTENING AND EMPATHY Listening is a gift you can give to someone else. Attention is the way of delivering the gift of listening. (I’m indebted to Keith Anderson for his enlightened elaboration of this concept.) You cannot be empathetic or really connect with another person without listening well. Giving attention through listening makes the communication meaningful.
WHY IS LISTENING A STRUGGLE? * We are barraged by noise. Because we hear by default – there are not “ear-lids” like our eyes have to stop input – noises in the environment can interfere with successful listening. * Because we take in constant noise, we experience hearing fatigue. Additionally, our brain learns to suppress sound. The brain is very efficient and filters out what isn’t a threat or survival opportunity, but the input is still there. It’s not noticed until it’s gone or until we make the effort. If you close your eyes in a “quiet” room in a modern Western house, notice that it isn’t silent: air conditioning blows air around, the computer you are reading this on hums, sounds filter in from other areas and what others are doing. When I lose power at the house is one of the few times I can find nearly total silence, and it’s a bit shocking. * We are subject to increasing distractions in media and information-rich environments. * Internal barriers are a problem that we can directly manage. I’ll be listing common barriers in more detail later, but for now, it’s most important to know they exist. * Listening is not valued in business. Here’s an example from my own experience: When I was a new consultant on a project, I was asked to attend a meeting with key stakeholders the first week I was on the team. Many of the team had joined a week or two prior to me. In order to ensure I was learning, not detracting from the conversation as I came up to speed, and gaining a deeper understanding, I offered to listen and take detailed notes after introducing myself and sharing my background and role. The PM told me that wasn’t possible because I had to “participate.” Just listening was not considered participating nor was it recognized as important. What makes this such a shame is that this is the norm. More frequently, we’re encouraged to do what comedian Katie Rich warns extends so many meetings,
“Do you know why meetings take so long? Because everyone wants to hear themselves say something and no one is listening to what the other people before them have said. Please, I beg you. Just shut up and listen.” (Southwest Magazine, September 2015)
* Listening is not taught or practiced the way “sending” communication modes like writing or speaking are. Listening is assumed and taken for granted.
COMMUNICATION MODEL FOCUSES ON SENDER We learn the classic communication model in speech and communication classes where the focus and the burden of communication success is largely on the sender. We are taught to craft the right message, encode it to send, select our channel, and ensure that the message arrives and get’s decoded by the receiver successfully. Noise in the channel that bar communication includes things such as other conversations, Inappropriate context or timing, or Interruptions. Tacitly, these all become something for the sender to control and manage.
The receiver can optionally provide feedback. Few responsibilities for communication success are taught for that role. The rare guidance is usually along the lines of a teacher asking a speech being to take notes or quietly listen when it’s another classmate’s turn to present.
THE RECEIVER IS ASSUMED TO KNOW WHAT TO DO But what about when we are the receiver and that is our most active role? In school, we learn that there can certainly be noise within the receiver’s mind that prevents communication:
* Unintended interpretations of the message * Other priorities in our minds that diminish our focus * Unexpected distracti… Squirrel!
Other than the admonition to pay attention – or a heated command like “Look at me!” by a frustrated parent to an inattentive child – we receive little instruction on even recognizing much less actively managing this internal noise. Few if any other instructions prepare us to be successful receivers, successful listeners.
BARRIERS AND FILTERS One of the key things that makes listening for each of us unique is the specific kinds of barriers and filters we have embedded in our mental models of the world. What makes this especially challenging is that we are not always aware of what these are. To become a better listener, you much be aware of the noise you bring to any communication and learn to manage it. To help you identify your own barriers and filters so that you can begin to manage them, here are a few forms each category might take for you to consider. This list is not intended to be exhaustive or apply to everyone – it can’t! – but can serve as a first step in the self-assessment.
* Values & Beliefs - Perceived normal/attractiveness: People who are considered attractive are generally given more attention. - Opinions can be a huge barrier, a bunker into which we retreat mentally - For example: How you listen to politicians is deeply affected by your alignment with or against their views * Attitudes - Feelings about the sender, including prejudices against gender, age, or ethnicity - May be positive or negative – both can heavily affect your ability to listen * Expectations and intentions - Focus on your objectives rather than openness to the speaker - Trying to force a particular outcome * Culture - Accents ~ Involuntary difficulty simply hearing the words correctly when spoken with an unfamiliar accent – practice and exposure ~ More directly, having a bias against certain cultures (for example, perceptions of someone who speaks with a Southern twang vs. someone from Brooklyn) - Often unconscious reaction to certain cultural cues - These frequently can be traced back for thousands of years, so filters around culture can be very hard to even discover * Situational barriers - Ambient noises - Emergencies
For each of these, you likely felt a certain reaction to what was being presented. Examine your reaction to know how a particular barrier might apply to you. Then decide how you may need to adjust your mindset when interacting with a speaker who triggers one of these barriers. If your reaction was neutral or surprise (“people think like that?”), that particular barrier may not apply to your mental model.
BAD LISTENING HABITS While barriers and filters may be an almost unconscious result of environment or experience, bad listening habits are generally an action we take that interferes with our ability to listen consciously. The following are a few common habits that we can work to change.
Forming a response: As Simon Sinek observes, ”There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.” When you begin thinking about what you want to say, you stop listening attentively to the speaker. You may have a great idea in response to a comment, but that thought will lack full understanding because you’ve tuned out. Worse still is when you are “loading the shotgun,” a quote shared by Steve Portigal, or engaging in confrontational listening. You are looking to push your message on the speaker, rather than open to the message the speaker wishes to tell. Whatever your motive, this behavior closes the listening space. Reliance on other channels: As discussed earlier, we are long past the point where oral tradition and the requisite listening skills are regularly practiced. We have many other ways of gathering input. Recordings, written word, and alternative channels are often ready available. As a result, we don’t place a priority on listening. In some ways, conferences like Big Design offer a return to the modern oral tradition (thanks to Keith Anderson for this observation).
Failing to recognize preconceptions: While being aware of the barriers and filters previously discussed can allow you to work to manage them to improve listening, failing to realize our biases prevents us from taking action. It takes mindfulness to understand our preconceptions at any place or time they might occur. For example, a situational filter that designers and researchers may experience is after observing trends across research sessions, assuming they will continue.
“Translating:” This concept came from a Udemy course for English language learners striving to listen better to spoken English. In that In our explorations with users, we may not be familiar with the concepts of audience, even if we speak the same language. If we let ourselves be distracted trying to focus on every new term, we may not grasp the core message or miss valuable insights being offered following that unfamiliar concept. We also risk confusing the point with our own perspective by turning the user’s language into our own.
Impatience: If we are anxious to speak, get to a specific objective, or otherwise end the listening, we may in fact stop listening as we focus instead on time and how much we would like to move things along.
Distraction: If we just cannot give our attention, we cannot listen effectively. Much as with recognizing biases and preconceptions, we should be mindful of whether we are in a state of mind to really attend to the speaker.
Disinterest: When we lack interest in a topic, we never truly opened the listening space. This can emerge at any point in a conversation, so we need to be mindful of our role as a listener is as much giving to the speaker as attending to our own needs. In the case of design conversations, sometimes the speaker needs to move through certain topics that do not immediately seem relevant to be able to speak to the topics that are. A disinterested stance prevents us from offering this path to the speaker and may deprive us of information we are seeking.
ACTIVE LISTENING EXERCISES Julian Treasure shared the following exercises to improve conscious listening:
Silence: Finding a place to be silent and listen to the silence supports calibrating and resetting our listening by limiting the noise barrage.
The mixer: This exercise involves identifying distinct sounds in a noise-filled environment to improve our ability to focus our listening and overcome barriers.
Savoring: Appreciating everyday sounds allow us to be more mindful of the value in all the sound around us.
Changing listening positions: Examples of listening positions (of many) are active, critical, empathetic, reductive (male – get to the point), and expansive (women – enjoying the journey). When you change your listening position – reshape the listening you’ve created – you exercise different listening muscles. The ESL listeners course introduced the concept of finding listening material to revisit periodically (for example, a favorite TEDtalk) to evaluate your listening. As you review the material and shift your listening stance, note the things in the material that you notice more with one stance or another.
Note: Julian Treasure includes “passive listening” as a position. I do not believe that is possible. Passive listening is hearing, maybe. Appreciative listening, which is potentially unstructured and not goal driven, may be the closest idea to what is truly meant by “passive.”
RASA: This acronym stands for the following
* Receive: a posture of listening * Appreciate: responsiveness (“uh-huh”) * Summarize: “So what I hear…”, a collection and recap of ideas * Ask: Question to show attention
Practicing these actions can help us improve our conscious listening.
Beyond these exercises, more broad ways to improve listening include regular practice and self-evaluation. Furthermore, the defining characteristic of good listening is mindfulness. Therefore, techniques that improve mindfulness and discipline are worth practicing. Whether that’s meditation, journaling, or other techniques, use what works and can be most successful for you.
REGULAR LISTENING PRACTICE * Establish a program to practice regularly – pick any or all of the techniques that can help you. * Actively and continuously practice listening, both as exercises and in daily life. * Regularly evaluate either against your own benchmarks or with a listening training partner. * Don’t get discouraged if the progress isn’t what you hoped for. Improvement requires regular practice like any skill development.
CREATING “A LISTENING” Once we understand what interferes with listening as well as knowing what we need to bring in the role of the listener, we realize the importance of the “created listening” type defined by Treasure. Furthermore, this understanding makes clear that we have control and responsibility as a conscious listener. We have the ability to manage and remove barriers and to open the listening up.
When we work in design session or engage users and stakeholders, we have the right tools to adopt the receiver role in an active and vital way. First, we have to be very aware of our position in a session. Are we listening to understand and connect (empathetic)? Are we listening to gain insights and knowledge (learning)? Are we listening to evaluate what is being said (critical)?
Secondly, we also have to prepare our minds to be fully present and aware in each listening session we plan. We can practice mindful listening. We can put aside biases and preconceptions that might arise depending on who we are talking to.
Thirdly, when we plan activities like design studios, usability testing, stakeholder interviews, or similar collaborations, we can go beyond the script for what we ask or say. We can develop listening plans as well. As part of our research planning, we might already specify location and times. This just extends that thinking. We can also prepare our session loggers and observers to be more active listeners as well.
During a session, we continue to manage the created listening space by checking on our state of mind. Evaluating our effectiveness periodically during a session makes sure that we remain conscious and keep the listening space open. We can also catch ourselves if we find ourselves falling into any bad habits.
TYPES OF LISTENING Along with listening positions to consider, there are types of listening to factor into our planning. The Skills You Need site describes two broad types that build upon each other:
* Discriminative Listening: This is the most basic form of listening and does not involve the understanding of the meaning of words or phrases but merely the different sounds that are produced. * Comprehensive Listening: Comprehensive listening involves understanding the message or messages that are being communicated. Like discriminative listening, comprehensive listening is fundamental to all listening sub-types.
Comprehensive listening can further be subdivided into a number of types. For user experience work, the most important of these are information listening, critical listening, and empathetic listening. We’ll discuss a few activities that fall in each of these categories next.
A few other types exist. Appreciative listening, such as for music or a play, may not apply to our work directly. If we are designing ambient sound for our projects, we may need to be mindful of creating something that supports appreciative listening. Our listening stance as designers until the project is finished is likely more critical listening.
Rapport listening is a type that helps us connect with the people we engage with. Because we often have short sessions, we have to be efficient with this type of listening in building trust and making participants confident that they will be listened to.
Selective listening was described as a negative type. This certainly is true when listening is confrontational, intending to challenge the speaker. However, a more humble application is the focused listening described earlier. When we enter the users’ domain, we need to focus very carefully to information that may be unfamiliar or complex. This type of listening when mindfully applied helps us be effective despite the “language barrier” that exists because we are not the domain experts our users are.
INFORMATIONAL AND CRITICAL LISTENING Work that we are likely to do that uses these types of listening include:
* Interviews * Usability tests * Workshops * Critiques * Education or training
You may have heard the terms “marketing listening” or “social listening.” Both terms refers to gathering insights about users and their attitudes by observing their activities and conversations online. This activity is not a listening type because it abstracts the communication and do not involve direct connection between us as listeners and the people sending the message.
Analytics and third-party research offer a different value to our design work, certainly. However, they should not be assumed to be equivalent to listening to people. In the People Skills for UX webinar, Steve Portigal pondered whether the rising popularity of analytics was because analysis is so much easier to do in many ways than listening directly to people. The power of listening is connecting with actual people in a deeper way than these tools offer.
As the listener in this situation, keep the following in mind: * Give enough silence. Portigal talked about a tendency some people have to “over ask” in research sessions (a comment that hit home to me). He attributed that bad habit to that “scary moment” when you transfer the power as the questioner to the person answering. Always remember that listening is a gift to the speaker. There’s no better way to thank participants for the knowledge and time they are giving you than providing them room to have their say and attention to their message. * In each situation, practice mindfulness and manage your inner voice and the barriers it might introduce. * Accept the mental model of the speakers. We should listen with our hearts to take in the full message. It’s easy to dismiss the emotional component of our work. Even if we are designing something like tax software, the experience affects people beyond merely task completion. * If appropriate, apply active listening techniques of taking notes yourself, but don’t let those be a barrier to listening. Plan for a session logger to ensure that you can focus on listening as much as moderating the session. * Do not discount attentive listening in real time just because you may be recording. Doing so short-changes the speaker. * While RASA applies completely to all listening situations, Summarize and Ask are key in our work to ensure an effective session.
THERAPEUTIC OR EMPATHETIC LISTENING We are increasingly recognizing the value of empathy in our work. So it makes sense that empathetic listening is a skill to bring into our research sessions.
However, in work, there are other applications for this type of listening. When considering team health and connections to bond, listening empathetically to colleagues is a valuable skill.
If you are a manager, this is also an important type of listening to cultivate trust and openness with your team. People respect managers who are authentic and conscious in each meeting.
As the listener in this situation, keep the following in mind:
* This listening is about understanding, not retaining details and facts. Practical Empathy by Indi Young describes empathy listening sessions in detail. * Humble questioning (a concept shared by Kevin Hoffman) is an important skill to support conscious listening. When listening to understand, questions should be to convey that the listening is available to the speaker and not to change the focus to you as the researcher. * While RASA applies completely to all listening situations, Receive and Appreciate are key in our work to ensure an effective session.
Summing up what we’ve explored here:
* Listening relies on multiple senses * Listening is a key to empathy * Listening faces many challenges, but you can manage them * Listening is a learnable skill * Listening is a lifetime practice * We can design our listenings in every facet of our work
I hope that you found some takeaways that will help you in your listening journey
Listen up! Improving listening skills and awareness
Big Design, Sept 2015 #BigD15 - @KarenBachmann 2
Hearing and Listening
Mechanism of the ear
Continuous and pervasive
Ears are only one input
Making meaning from sound
Conscious and selective
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Listening depends on more than just
the hearing sense
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How we listen
• Listening is unique to each person
• Active or Conscious
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Listening is at the heart of building empathy
Listening is an active practice of empathy
Why is listening a struggle?
Not valued like speaking
Not taught or practiced
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focuses on sender
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focuses on sender
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Barriers and filters
Values and beliefs
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Bad listening habits
• Forming a response before the speaker finishes
• Reliance on other channels – recordings and writing
• Not recognizing our own preconceptions and biases
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Active listening exercises
• “The mixer”
• Changing listening positions
• RASA = Receive, Appreciate,
• Practice and self-evaluation
• Techniques that improve
mindfulness and discipline
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Practice, as with any skill
Evaluate against benchmarks or with a partner
Creating “a listening”
• Understanding listening positions – awareness, presence,
• Actively designing “a listening”
• Not setting up the session or writing your script
• Preparing your mind to receive
• Preparing the context mindful of
all the potential barriers and
remove as many as possible
• Planning to check on your listening
• "Where am I listening from?”
• “Is this working for me?”
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Types of Listening
• Informational Listening (Listening to learn)
• Critical Listening (Listening to evaluate and analyze)
• Therapeutic or Empathetic Listening (Listening to understand
feeling and emotion)
• Appreciative Listening (Listening for enjoyment)
• Rapport Listening (Listening to create connection)
• Selective Listening (Listening for specific information)
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Informational and Critical Listening
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Give the gift of enough silence
Know and control your biases and inner voice
Accept their mental model (listen with heart)
Summarize and Ask (RASA)
Therapeutic or Empathetic Listening
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Understanding vs. retention
Receive and Appreciate (RASA)
• Listening relies on multiple senses
• Listening is a key to empathy
• Listening faces many challenges,
but you can manage them
• Listening is a learnable skill
• Listening is a lifetime practice
• We can design our listenings in
every facet of our work
Big Design, Sept 2015 #BigD15 - @KarenBachmann 18
Big Design, Sept 2015 #BigD15 - @KarenBachmann 19
Big Design, Sept 2015 #BigD15 - @KarenBachmann 20
As the Research & Strategy Practice Lead with Perficient, I lead a cross-
discipline team of user researchers, UX strategists, IAs, content strategists,
BAs, and analytics experts. Feel free to connect with me through any channel
you may find me:
Despite all the dog pics, I live with 6 ferrets
who expect me and the other human
to listen to them, not the other way around.
• Listening Skills: http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/listening-skills.html
• International Listening Association: http://www.listen.org/
• Conscious Listening, Julian Treasure (Udemy)
• People Skills for UX: Listening with Julian Treasure and Steve Portigal
• How to Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer J. Adler
• Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?, Ann Friedman
• Are You Leading or Lording? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-leading-lording-bill-j-koza
• 17 Secrets to Native listening Skill in English, Gabby Wallace (Udemy)
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