This is a re-post of my article The fine art of listening that was posted on the nForm blog December 22, 2009.
As UX practitioners we help create things that are better, more usable, better organized, easier to engage with, help sell more stuff or reduce costs (a non-exhaustive list). Many of our methodologies and approaches leverage a single important skill – listening. And while many of us recognize the importance listening plays in our work few of us are really good at it.
According to research about listening:
- We spend about 45% of our time listening
- We can recall about 50% of what was said after someone speaks and comprehend about 25%
- Spoken words only account for 30 -35% of the meaning. The rest is transmitted through nonverbal communication that only can be detected through visual and auditory listening
- The average person talks at a rate of about 125 – 175 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute
Effective communication and relationship building, whether with clients, peers or others, is dependent on good listening habits. So how important is listening in our day-to-day communication?
- Ralph G Nichols and Leonard A Stevens (researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa, respectively) in their Harvard Business Review article, Listening to People found that managers and office workers earn 40% of their salaries listening; executives earn up to 80%.
- Three of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are dedicated to communication and listening. Take for example Habit 5 that states, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Effectively listening can help us understand a situation; make informed decisions; be more efficient and productive; build trust and respect; and help us develop strong relationships with others.
Here’s some examples of places where listening is required in UX:
- During sales: this is where we build relationships and understand need
- During design research or discovery: We need to actively listen and be attentive to the inputs being provided. Through listening we learn about the needs, pain points, issues, opportunities, goals, interests, etc. of our users
- When facilitating: Listening is critical to ensuring that we effectively guide discussions and gather input/feedback about end-user or business needs
- When presenting deliverables: Listening to what people say about our work through dialogue and feedback.
The good news is that like other forms of communication such as writing and speaking, listening is a skill that can be learned. All it takes is a bit of understanding and practice. Some of you will be great at it immediately, while others may need to continuously practice and build your skills.
How do you get better at listening? Here’s some suggestions:
- First, clear your mind so you can actively listen.
- Second, be quiet. Shut up. Don’t talk. Really, be quiet. Learn to tolerate silence and don’t interrupt. Hold back on the impulse to immediately answer questions or to jump in and share your point-of-view while others are talking.
- Third, try changing how you listen. Try to capture the message (listen with your ears, mind, eyes and heart). Make eye contact, use an open posture and be attentive to body language, volume, tone and pace. Look deeper than just the meaning of the words and try to understand the reason, feelings or intent beyond the words. Be empathetic, objective and analytical.
- Fourth, comprehend what was said.
- Fifth, clarify by paraphrasing back what was said. Use your own words to confirm that what you’ve heard is correctly understood. If you are told that you didn’t understand it correctly, try asking people to re-communicate it as a metaphor, this can often get you back on the same page. If you don’t understand something, say so.
- Lastly, respond to what was said (if you need to) or ask more questions and keep on listening.
If you want to practice these skills, give this a try:
Walk up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself. Shake their hand and ask who they are. Then listen, ask questions, listen some more and don’t talk except to ask questions. See what you can discover.