If there are two things I can definitely improve, I’d say it would be my ability to “pause” and “listen”. Too often, I’ve made the mistake of not listening to what the other person is saying. Instead, I’m thinking of what to say myself or making assumptions, completely ‘steamrolling’ the other person in the process …
Looking back, I guess my inability to listen was closely linked to my focus on products over people. This focus effectively meant that I cared more about products, and less about building relationships with people. For example, I felt at times that internal stakeholders were more of a necessary evil whose sole purpose was to hinder product development. Fortunately, I no longer adhere to this point of view and I’ve come to realise how critical collaboration is to building great products.
I had to think back to this transition when I recently read “Practical Empathy”, which Indi Young, an independent UX consultant, published in 2015. In this great book, Young explains that empathy is all about understanding what’s going on in other people’s minds. She describes “listening” as a vital tool to create a deeper understanding and talks about “a new way to listen”:
- Listen for reasoning (inner thinking) — What is going through someone else’s mind?
- Listen for reactions — Reactions often go hand in hand with reasoning. For instance, I could express an emotional response when I describe why I decided to make a career change.
- Listen for guiding principles — A guiding principle is a philosophy or belief that someone uses to decide what action to take, what to choose, how to act, etc.
I found that for people like me — i.e. with lots of opinions, thoughts, ideas and assumptions — listening can be incredibly difficult. In the Netherlands where I was born, voicing your opinion and standing up for oneself are considered highly regarded attributes. I’ve had to learn — and am still learning — to “pause” a lot more. Instead of jumping to conclusions or simply getting my two cents in, I’ve learned to breathe and pause first before deciding to say something or to simply listen. I’m trying to remind myself continuously that each I forget to listen, I forfeit the opportunity to understand what’s driving the other person.
Let me share a real life example with you, to illustrate how listening can help to develop a better understanding of where the other person is coming from:
A while ago, I was talking about team performance with an engineer and he mentioned that “we have to be careful, because most engineers are delicate beings”.
Me — before understanding a single thing about listening and empathy
With a comment like the engineer had made, I’d have jumped straight in there and would have said: “what are you talking about! Surely, not all developers are delicate human beings! I’ve worked with some developers who made me look like a wallflower!” and so on and so forth.
Me — with the beginnings of an understanding about listening and empathy
In this real life example, I didn’t respond at all. I paused and listened. By allowing the engineer speak, I started to understand that he cared deeply about the developers in the team and considered himself as their mentor, wanting to make sure they fully enjoyed their day job.
The moral of this story is that listening starts with taking that split second to stop that innate desire to respond immediately. I learned a lot about listening from reading and practising the insights from “Active Listening”, another valuable book. In this book by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker, they describe the four components of active listening:
- Acceptance — Acceptance is about respecting the person that you’re talking to; irrespective of what the other person has to say but purely because you’re talking to another human being. Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. I’ve often made this mistake; being too keen to express my views and thus encouraging the speaker to take a very defensive stance in the conversation.
- Honesty — Honesty comes down to being open about your reactions to what you’ve heard. Similar to the acceptance component, honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker.
- Empathy — Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.
- Specifics — Specifics refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities. The point here is that for communication to be worthwhile, you should ask the speaker to be more specific, encouraging the speaker to open up more or “own” the problem that they’re trying to raise.
The thing with empathy, as Young points out in her book, is that it isn’t about having to feel warmth for the other person or fully agree with him / her. In contrast, empathy means understanding and comprehending the other person. It takes time and skill to be able to drop in to a neutral frame of mind to:
- Resist the urge to demonstrate how smart you are — Well known technology exec and investor Bill Krause used to write down “DNT” in his notepad during meetings. “DNT” stood for “Do Not Talk”, and he used it as a practical tool to stop himself from saying something or showing how smart he was. Young also provides some good tips on how to stop yourself from talking or saying too much (see Fig. 2 below).
- Develop the knowledge to gain empathy — In “Practical Empathy”, Young suggests a few simple questions that can help you build a better understanding of the other person’s deeper reasoning and principles. Readers are encouraged to use the fewest number of words possible when asking question (see Fig. 1 below).
- Apply empathy to both customers and colleagues — UX expert Erika Hall recently made a great point about the importance of applying empathy to co-workers (listen to the Aurelius podcast here for the interview with Erika). Again, I used to make the mistake of solely applying customer empathy but not paying enough attention or respect to colleagues. Showing empathy towards can be as simple as understanding about someone’s else workload or OKRs.
Main learning point: Empathy — both inward and outward — is SO SO important. Pausing and listening are your first tools on the path towards developing empathy. Yes, I look back on mistakes made and people that I’ve upset in the past due to a lack of empathy, but I feel that I’ve learned a lot since then (whilst I appreciate I still have got a long way to go). If you want to get started on developing and showing more empathy, I’d highly recommend reading “Practical Empathy” by Indi Young and “Active Listening” by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker.
Fig. 1 — Use the fewest number of words possible — Taken from: Indi Young — Practical Empathy, p. 60
- “Why’s that?”
- “What were you thinking?”
- “What’s your reasoning?”
- Tell me more about <her phrase>.”
Fig. 2 — Summary of “a new way to listen” — Taken from: Indi Young — Practical Empathy, p. 77
What to listen for:
Reasoning: Thinking, decision-making, motivations, thought processes, rationalisation.
Reaction: Responses to something — mostly emotional, some behavioural.
Guiding Principle: Belief that guides decisions.
Follow the peaks and valleys:
- Started with a broad topic
- Let the speaker keep choosing the direction
- Dig into the last few remarks
- Use the fewest number of words possible
- Reiterate a topic to show attention, verify your understanding and ask for more
- Avoid introducing words the speaker hasn’t used
- Try not to say “I”
- Don’t fake it — react, be present
- Never switch abruptly
- Adapt yourself to the mood
- Don’t cause doubt or worry
- Be the undermind, not the overmind
- Resist the urge to demonstrate how smart you are
- Avoid implying or telling the speaker she is wrong
Neutralise your reactions:
- Learn how to notice your emotional reactions
- Dissipate your reactions and judgments