How to Listen Like You Mean It
Learn why the timeless skill of listening is more important than ever before
Ximena Vengoechea is a user researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., The Washington post, Newsweek, and Huffington Post. She is the author of the new book, Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection (Portfolio/Penguin Random House).
She is a contributor at Fast Company and The Muse, and writes Letters from Ximena, a newsletter on tech, culture, career, and creativity. An experienced manager, mentor, and researcher in the tech industry, she previously worked at Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
I caught up with Ximena to ask her about how we can be better listeners at a time when so many conversations and so much of our work happens online.
What are the most common listening mistakes we can encounter in the workplace?
Particularly in the workplace, where each of us has our own set of skills and expertise that we bring to the table, it’s natural to hear what our colleagues say through the lens of “how can my expertise help?” or “what would I do if it were me?”. Sometimes this can be very helpful, but sometimes by focusing so much on our own experience and expertise we can miss the mark on what others really need.
What if I’m ready to listen but the other person doesn’t seem ready to share?
We never want to push others to share more than they are comfortable with. If you are ready to listen but your conversation partner isn’t ready to share, I recommend first pausing to ask yourself what might be driving their reticence. Could it be the topic of conversation, present company — including you? Try to understand where the other person might be coming from, and proceed carefully. Consider the possibility that although you are ready to listen, you might not be the best listening partner for this given topic or company. Perhaps you might recommend a different person, instead.
If on the other hand there is sufficient safety and security in the relationship yet the person still isn’t ready to share, you can gently share your observation and your intent with the other person to invite them in. “My sense is that this might be an uncomfortable topic. Please know my intent is not to provoke or upset you, but to get to know you and your experience better, uncomfortable as it may be. Is that something you’d be up for?”
For some, a direct invitation to participate can be clarifying and comforting. For others, the best approach is a subtle one. Here, you can use silence (see what happens if you wait just ten more seconds for the other person to respond or complete a thought) and small nudges (“say more,” “how so?”, “what else?”, “tell me about that”) to keep the conversation going.
Whatever technique you choose, pay close attention to your conversation partner’s response. As you proceed, notice whether they are opening up and letting you in (if so, great, keep going!) or shutting down and keeping you out (if so, respect their decision and pull back).
How can we increase empathetic listening during phone and zoom calls?
Digital tools create opportunities for communication that were previously impossible — how amazing to connect with teammates, friends, and family across the globe! — but they also create new challenges and disruptions in our communication, too. It’s no secret that many of us find it hard not to multitask while we are on a Zoom call or even a phone call, to a greater degree than we might feel is appropriate during an in-person conversation — making listening with empathy that much more difficult. To combat this, set your phone aside, block notifications, grab some noise-cancelling headphones and give your conversation partner your full attention. Do your best to look at your conversation partner rather than your own image, and look into your webcam while speaking. This helps mimic some of the natural benefits of maintaining eye contact in real life and generate a stronger sense of connection to our conversation partner. It also gives the effect to others that you are speaking directly to them, even in a crowded video call. To combat your instinct to check yourself out (you look great!), put a sticker or post-it note by your webcam as a reminder of where to look. Consider also a dual monitor — one for documents, one for video calls — or split a single screen so that you don’t have to bury others’ faces behind documents as you talk through them.
What are some clues that we’re not in a good space to listen and should ‘punt’ the conversation to a later time?
Being self-aware about who we are as listeners — how we tend to show up in conversation; what topics, settings, or company prompt us to interrupt, disengage, or become too emotional to hear others out; understanding our own default listening mode (being a problem-solver, a validator, an identifier, or the like) — directly impacts our ability to listen with empathy. The more we know about ourselves and what causes us to get in our own heads and in our own way in conversation, the more we can adapt our listening tendencies as necessary.
Here are a few signs that you are not in the right headspace to listen with empathy, and that it might be best to hit pause and come back to a conversation:
- you’ve become emotionally activated and can no longer rationally respond or hear the other person (best to come back with a calmer heart)
- you’re tired and unable to focus (cat nap, caffeine run, or rest your brain for a few minutes before taking a conversation on)
- you’re hungry and unable to concentrate (fuel up, then take on that tough conversation)
- you’re still working on a problem from a previous conversation (a quick reset or 60 second meditative break can help!)
What are some cues from our conversation partners that can let us know we’re not in a productive listening mode for the conversation? (eg we’re problem-solving when they need a validator)
Our conversation partners are constantly letting us know in conversation whether we are really hearing them, if we know what to listen for. Pay attention to nonverbal cues like furrowed brows and squinty eyes, which can indicate confusion; silence or restlessness, which can indicate we’ve misunderstood their position; or shrinking posture, which can indicate we have upset or made them uncomfortable in some way. It’s also perfectly fair to ask what is needed if it’s clear we are not on the right track, but don’t know where to go next. Saying something like, “I have some ideas based on what you just shared. Would it be helpful to hear some advice?” or “My instinct is to make a suggestion given your update — is that what you are looking for?” or most simply, “Would you like me to listen or respond?” can help.
What is listener’s drain and how can we fight it?
Listener’s drain is a natural side effect of good listening in action. It’s what happens after a full day of one-on-one meetings, client sessions, or even deep friend catch ups where each party is intently listening. It can feel like you are very tired and depleted, run down and on the verge of getting a cold. To prevent listener’s drain, it’s important to know your own limits — how many meetings a day leave you exhausted? Can you schedule a few less? Or, how many breaks from conversation are needed to ensure you don’t flame out before 3pm? Can you intentionally design a five minute break in your day before charging ahead to that next obligation? The more you know about yourself up front, the more intentional you can be about architecting your day to best support your listening efforts, without pushing you too far.
If you do go too far (and who hasn’t!), recovering from empathetic listening can mean creating a silent space (no thoughts but your own), journaling, sharing your experience with others, and recharging in the ways unique to you — whether that’s catching up with old friends or curling into a good book.
Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century teamwork and communication. She is an award winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on LinkedIn.