Improving Your Listening Skills


Not Listening

Listening is one of those skills that no one really talks about, and yet listening is critical to User Research and general business as well.

You have to understand, and in some cases even become emotive, with the users you are listening to.  Yes we can all listen to some degree, but the reality is this will not be that thorough, there will be gaps, major things that you will miss or just did not understand completely.

It follows in the field of user experience listening is critical. Without it you just aren’t going to a able to understand the issues your users are telling you, or worse you will miss important information.

Hearing on the other hand is something we do all the time, it’s something that we frankly can’t turn off.  However listening is very different.  Listening is hearing with the processing of the information added in, this  takes a reasonably conscious intent.

This is demonstrated by the moment, we have all had, when we are not really paying attention and  stop listening to a conversation and are subsequently are lost as we try and tune back in again.

It’s Hard to Listen

Years ago I learnt the basic rules of listening, techniques  that can help you improve and assist you  with becoming aware of your environment when listening to people.  It’s amazing skills learn 25 years ago are still relevant today.

One thing stands out however –  listening is really hard work.  It doesn’t come naturally.   You have to train yourself to really listen and observe. Like any skill it also needs to be practiced or you will loose it.

Unfortunately we are not programmed  to be good listeners.

This is because our mind will wander off onto another topic, after it has processed about a 7 to 17 second sound bite of information.  During this processing period, your mind is already lining up all the mental, and sensory stimulus or distractions around you, just so it can tempt  you with something more interesting.  On a side note you also process and will form an option on what you are listening to in this 7-17 second time period as well.

Improving Your Listening Skill

What you need to do is train yourself to listen. To overcome this 17 second sound bite limitation.  That’s where these tips can help:

  1. Focus.

    Give the user 100% attention – remind yourself what you are there to do, to focused on the user.

  2. Remove Distraction.

    Remove all distractions, this includes phones, emails,  background noise, make the user the focus of your attention. Put a do not disturb sign on the door, and ensure your mobile is on silent mode.

  3. Take notes.

    You will be doing this anyway, or should be.   Taking notes is a great reminder,  it gets you to automatically focus on the person, and distill what they are saying into key thematic elements.  Note taking is also great for sequential information collection and reinforcement as it forces you into a routine, that breaks the 17 second processing loop as  you are  filling it with the over lapping note taking processing.

  4. Shut Up.

    You are listening, so you shouldn’t be  talking that much.  No interruptions, the user is telling the story not you.  Your only conversation should be with questions to clarify or investigate.   No options, no stories and definitely no soapbox rants.

  5. Questioning is Good.

    We all know that it’s important to ask the right type of questions during an interview.   In fact you could have an entire post just on interview questions and strategy.  When questioning you don’t want to lead the person at all.  You need to ask investigative (open ended questions)  or confirmation questions that paraphrase what the user has just said.  It’s a good idea not to use your own words (and avoid the buzz words) – use theirs.  Don’t  evaluate by giving any option with a question.  Also watch your body language giving off the wrong non verbal cues.  Thinking up questions on the fly is initially not easy, but after a while you will discover that you have lots of time, and the right question instantly, more on this later.

  6. Body Language.

    Yes there are going to be non verbal cues, and you have to be observant and pick them up. They could be a change in facial expression, voice tone, a postural shift or just hand actions.  These are all important and can indicate an emotion shift.  Watch for this, don’t be afraid to ask about it gently.

  7. Silence is Good.

    It’s okay for the user to be silent and think about the subject at hand.  This gives you time to watch for those non verbal cues and the like.  Be passive, don’t interrupt the silent time, especially if they look like they are thinking. Patience is the key.

  8. Give No Advice.

    Again it’s not about you, it’s about the user, let them find the solution, let them see the alternatives. Yes you may need to repeat their own alternatives back to them and ask  how the feel about them and such.   But this is not the same as giving your person option. The reason giving an option is bad is by doing so it will re focus the listening process on you and will give the impression that you are not listening at all as you have not helped them find the solution at all.

  9. Remove Bias.

    Reset you mind for each interview or conversation, don’t go into one with any preconceived ideas, bias, prejudices or the like.  Remember that each person is different and you can learn lots if you just listen to them. Ensure you start without a preconceived option from maybe age, gender,  race, ethnic group, culture or previous contact.   You can’t assume you  know what they are going to say, want or even tell you, they are not you.

  10. Learn to Say No.

    If you are really tired, can’t focus,  don’t even try and continue with an interview.  You are just going to ruin the results you get as they will be half hearted at best.  Better to reschedule for when you can give your full attention.  I find the best solution is not to overload the day with interviews,  testing subjects or the like.

  11. Practice.

    I find it best to really practice listening very intently about 2-3 times a week at first, then after a while you will get better.  Ensure that after a listening session you take the time to review what you have done and note down the mistakes you made and what caused them.  Also it’s a good idea to  seek out colleagues to give you honest reviews on your listening skills.

More Bonuses

I have found after a while you become very aware when you are listening.  You notice lots of small details, and you will also end up with a large amount of dead time to think.  It’s almost as if by removing your conversation you have slowed down time, giving you these large slabs of free time in which to process the conversation and respond.  Use them wisely.

Another aspect of being a good listener is that you will show people that you care about them and will connect with them.  Remember once you find the topic people love to talk about, you often can’t stop them, especially when its a topics they are passionate about.   Yes this does apply to even ultra shy introverts as well.

Taking the time to listen to someone, will also make them feel good, wanted, understood, this will gain you a lot of allies in the long term.

Interestingly these tips can also be applied to general day to day life as well, so what you have learnt for user research has a number of carry overs.

Can you think of any more techniques you have used to improve your listening skills? If you can please add them below.

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