Stop talking, start listening

Image credit: Vanessa Brantley Newton

Good designers are good listeners. They start by understanding, not solving.

I recently found myself in a meeting with a designer who just started working on a design problem I had spent the last three months working on. I wanted to share some of the insights I gained, but I didn’t get the chance.

I’ve spent months working on this I thought, and this guy comes in and won’t even give me a chance to share what I learned.

I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy.

But instead of focusing on my emotions, I tried to force myself to listen. Because whenever you let those emotions get to you, you know you’re not making it about work, you’re making it about yourself.

Did this meeting make me rethink every design decision I made? No. Although that would be a beautiful story, that’s not what this is about. There are a few others things I learned though.

If there is one thing I took away from working at iA, it’s how important it is to be a good listener. You can often tell how experienced designers are not by the amount they talk but by the amount they don’t.

The upside of practicing our listening skills is that we’ll automatically help others become better listeners too. This will not just foster a better work atmosphere but also naturally improve every aspect of our designs.

So let’s see how we get there.

Passive vs. active listening

There are two basic types of listening, one which will help you create better work, the other leading to a life of solitude and misery.

Whenever you’re attending a meeting or talking to someone, ask yourself critically:

Am I listening actively or passively?

If you’re not really listening, then why not grab all your stuff, get up and leave the room right now? There is no reason for you to be there. Record a voice note, send it to everyone via email and block all incoming responses.

The effect might as well be the same.

Let’s try to be an active listener instead. You’re stuck in this meeting anyways…so why not make the best out of it?

There are some notable benefits in it for us.

1. Listening changes the nature of the conversation

People often turn into passive listeners because they don’t feel listened to themselves.

In the meeting I mentioned earlier, I noticed how the other person gradually became more open towards my ideas as soon as he felt like I listened and genuinely tried to understand his.

Even when the other person is saying something repetitive, or a thought you already had a while ago, try not to interrupt. Listening gives you the reassurance that you’re on the right path and went through the same design considerations.

An other person’s seemingly most insignificant insight, can often lead to new and better ideas. So let’s turn passive conversations into active ones.

2. Listening builds trust and support

Listening builds trust and helps establish an environment where everyone feels like they’re aspiring to the same ideal and working towards the same goal.

Whether you change your design based on the discussions you have is ultimately your choice. The important part is considering that you might be wrong and giving other ideas a real chance.

Immediately rejecting other opinions is easy. Challenge yourself to appreciate and understand alternative views.

3. Listening improves your work

It goes without saying that being a good listener will improve your work. Try to reach out to your peers and ask them for feedback.

Being a good listener doesn’t mean just sitting there and STFU. It means asking the questions you think are important for you to create great work.

Even though it might seem obvious, always avoid questions like, “How do you like it?”

Ask specific and neutral questions like, “Do you have any concerns about what you’re looking at?”

Critical feedback can be hard to digest. But it’s the only way to grow and improve.


Thanks for listening, erm… reading. I appreciate you made it till here.

UX design is a fast-paced industry. Every week we see new tools, trends, and patterns emerge and it’s hard to keep track of all of them. But there is one critical tool that remains remarkably unchanged. A tool we always have with us, even with our laptops closed: listening.

Let’s keep in mind that design isn’t hard because of all the tools we need to master, but because we’re dealing with people.

Or as Mark Boulton aptly put it:

“The design process is weird and complicated because it involves people, who are weird and complicated.”
– Mark Boulton

Thanks for reading! Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter.

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