Ximena Vengoechea has done a lot of listening. Keeping her ears and mind attuned to the needs of others is something of a calling for her not only in her work as a user researcher at some of the biggest names in the technology industry, but as a person navigating the constant stimuli of modern life. Her book Listen Like You Mean It is a user’s manual to connecting to the world around you through the almighty power of listening — which involves far more than maintaining eye contact and inserting the odd affirmative nod. Listening, it so happens, involves decoding and interpreting what isn’t said, in addition to what actually is.
I recently spoke to Vengoechea about the concept of listening, and how improving one’s listening skills can impact so many aspects of our lives, including the ways we work.
How does one perfect the art of listening, and how does your research in this area inform your approach to work?
Most of us listen “well enough.” We catch the surface-level, literal meaning of what’s been said — enough to remain polite with our neighbours and colleagues and nod and smile at our partners — but we miss the subtext and emotions beneath the surface.
Effective listening is about creating the space for others to express themselves, in order to better understand them. Putting this into practice requires a strong awareness and understanding of ourselves (and what biases, assumptions, emotions, and experiences we are bringing into a given conversation), as well as a strong understanding of others — and specifically of others’ needs in conversation.
Understanding others’ needs has proven to be very effective in my work. In any given conversation, it’s crucial to understand what needs your conversation partner is bringing in, be it a need for support, advice, validation, or simply an empathetic ear. It’s a kind of detective work that makes collaborating and aligning with others much easier, and also makes meetings (and life!) a lot more interesting. I find myself using this technique often in my approach to work. At the office, if I’m called into a meeting, I want to uncover: What is the need here? What is this person trying to accomplish? What role are they hoping I can play in meeting that need? There’s always a latent need to uncover, and by giving others the space to express themselves and getting curious and asking questions along the way, I can get closer to understanding those needs, and that person.
You finished your book while raising a newborn in the pandemic and working a full-time job on top of freelance gigs — sounds like a monstrous endeavour. How did you manage your time during this process?
Monstrous is the right word! In general I wouldn’t recommend trying to do All The Things at once, but it happens. Because my time was so scarce, I had to be regimented about it. I kept a massive spreadsheet to track my progress on the book over the course of two years. It helped me to stay organised and also motivated. Especially on days where I’d find myself reworking a chapter and feeling like I’d made little progress, it was a helpful reminder that I had in fact done what I’d set out to do.
The other thing I did was honour my natural productivity cycle as much as possible. Over the years, through observation and self-tracking, I’ve learned that I do my best strategic thinking before lunchtime. That makes mornings a great time for me to do the actual work of writing. As the day goes on, my energy wanes, so I turn to less taxing efforts, like administrative tasks and emails. Evenings are best for “lean back” activities like reading relevant books and expert research, or drawing — my book includes just shy of 100 illustrations, and drawing is for me quite meditative and helps me to wind down.
Knowing all of this made it much easier for me to find the right activity for a given block of time, which helps when you don’t have much time to begin with. The other thing that helped was creatively using existing pockets of time (like commutes, back when we had those, and my toddler’s nap time), as well as having a very supportive spouse — my husband definitely picked up the slack at home and kept my toddler and I fed.
When having everyday conversations, what are some ways the average person can dig deeper and use listening skills to build stronger relationships?
Usually, we are so caught up in our own narratives — winding up to respond to something that’s been said, mentally tuning out because we find a topic boring, jumping ahead in an effort to persuade or correct someone — that we don’t actually hear what the other person is saying. To truly hear someone out, we need to set aside our own assumptions, opinions, and preconceived notions (also, sometimes, our emotions). In other words, we need to bring humility into the conversation — to shift our mindset from being an expert with all the answers to being a student open to hearing more.
From there, get curious about your conversation partner. What can you learn about them at this moment? What can they teach you about a given topic, experience, or themselves? Asking others about their experience is one of the best ways to strengthen a relationship, because it demonstrates your interest in another person. Research shows that rather than focusing our efforts on being interesting to others (by telling stories, jokes, or “performing” for them), we should concentrate on being interested in others — that’s what draws people in. You can do this by asking open-ended questions that begin with “how” and “what” — these are more constructive questions than those that begin with “do,” “is,” and “are”, which are more likely to bias others and result in one-word, yes-or-no responses. Ask follow up questions, too, to take the conversation deeper. For example, encourage the conversation by asking, “what else?” or “say more about that,” or “tell me more.”
Of course, remember your goal is to have a conversation, not an interrogation, so make sure you are paying attention to body language and tone of voice to understand if your question-asking is paying off or making someone uncomfortable. This is where the “art” side of listening comes in — a script is a fine place to start, but you have to continuously check in, using your own eyes and ears and intuition, to make a conversation sing.
How can someone use listening skills to better inform their own approach to work?
One of the interesting things about improving your listening skills is that you begin to realise how much of your ability to be an effective listener is really about you, not the other person [and] how fascinating or boring they are (in fact, if they’re boring, in some ways that is on you).
We tend to assume that listening is little more than showing up and paying attention to the other person, but it’s also deeply tied to paying attention to ourselves. It’s noticing how we instinctively listen in conversation — what I call our “default listening modes,” a kind of filter we hear the world through, such as problem-solving, mediating, or validating — and whether or not that given listening mode is really what’s called for.
It’s identifying your personal “hot spots,” the topics that uniquely set you off and emotionally activate you in some way, be it talking about climate change, Father’s Day, or feminism, and becoming aware of when you are having a strong reaction in conversation that makes it hard to listen with empathy. And it’s knowing what prevents you from staying present, be it a lack of food or sleep, being a morning person or a night owl, getting distracted by devices, and more. That kind of self-knowledge comes by having a scientific approach and observing yourself in action: tracking your thoughts, instincts, and emotions during a conversation, and also reflecting on them afterward. [Consider] external factors, too, like how your surrounding environment, the topic at hand, or even particular company affect your ability to listen.
When you do this, you can more easily see what gets in the way of your ability to listen with empathy, and even catch yourself in real time. I think that makes many of our work-related conversations much easier. In a performance review or heated debate, you can catch yourself if you’re having an emotional response to feedback and are having trouble hearing the other person out. In a coffee catch up with a colleague, you can notice if you are zoning out because you are hungry, tired, or distracted by a previous conversation. Observing and learning from your behaviour and noticing how you are affected by your surroundings helps you to uncover your unique needs for doing your best listening. That’s going to help everything from meetings to brainstorms to interviews and client presentations run smoother.
What are some lessons you learned about work from the process of writing this book, and how do you hope to implement them going forward?
In my day job, I don’t consider myself to be a perfectionist — my motto when working in startups has always been “done is better than perfect,” and if a project took two months to complete that was considered to be a long time. Yet writing a book is an entirely different endeavour. I worked on the book for two years, and it turns out, I do have some perfectionist tendencies after all, for the right project. Though I loved the blank page part of the writing process (going from 0-80% has always been my sweet spot), when it came time for editing, I found I had a tendency to overdo it.
The editing process taught me the importance of stepping back when you’ve reached a limit instead of trying to perfect something. I can’t tell you how many times in the last stretch of my work I tried so hard to “crack” a chapter that I ended up cracking it wide open and making an even bigger mess of it, all because I was too close to it and couldn’t see that the thing that needed fixing was actually far simpler than I was making it out to be. Kudos to my husband for forcing me to close the laptop and take a walk on more than one occasion!
My editor was also helpful in pointing out when something was good enough. The takeaway for me is that it’s important to be able to step back and recognise when you’ve reached a limit on improving something, and equally important to have people in your life and in support of your work that you can turn to for help with the things you know you aren’t good at, and don’t have the energy or skill set for.