Listening Deeply

Indi Young
Jul 16, 2019 · 3 min read

newsletter #13 | 21-Jun-2016

When I help clients learn to conduct listening sessions, commonly people want an example of what it means to go deep. I will do a demo and several exercises. Sometimes this doesn't quite illustrate what I mean, so I also do one-on-one coaching. The most common challenge I find is the coachee will expect a listening session to explicitly answer the questions that the whole study aims to unearth. A listening session is different in that nothing will be answered explicitly ... but it will get referenced along the way by participants who have something to say about it. The other common challenge is actually tuning in to your own informal human curiosity, instead of playing a formal researcher role. In the formal approach, coachees will hear about topics that sound rich to them, but they will not stop and dig in. In the informal approach, whenever a surface statement pings your curiosity about its history, get to the root of it. "I lost 70 pounds, bought a bike, and turned a spare bedroom into a home gym." By themselves, these are just surface-level statements of fact. If you ask about them, tugging at them gently, you can find out why the participant decided to create a home gym, what past events influenced the decision, why they decided on a bike and where the idea came from, what thinking they did to create a workout plan, and everything (motivation and momentum, heart and soul) that went into losing 70 pounds. These are rich fields, indeed, sprouting with plants. You can't develop cognitive empathy by just looking--you have to go tug at them and see what the roots are.

Here’s an example of a listener (on the right, in pink) who is used to a more formal research approach. The listener is thinking about their goals, not stepping into the shoes of the participant (on the left, in blue).

Below is an example of developing cognitive empathy, while also being open to emotional empathy. The listener (on the right, in green) is feeling curious about what the participant (on the left, in blue) is saying and also feeling a bit of what they’re feeling.

In a listening session, you follow the other person. When they are speaking at the surface level, you notice explanations and generalizations that hint at deeper inner thinking and history behind them. You hint back that you’re interested in learning more about that depth. The speaker feels supported by you. You are filled only with curiosity about what is said. The rest of the world and your goals do not intrude. The goals were met in scoping & recruiting for these participants. You can relax now and let them tell you their thinking.

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Indi Young

Written by

Freelance problem space researcher helping digital clients find opportunities to support diversity; author & speaker; www.indiyoung.com; cofounder Adaptive Path

Inclusive Software

Essays about cognitive empathy, demographic assumptions, and software design