A test for how well do you listen and why you might listen poorly

Develop an awareness of how well you listen, why you listen poorly.
Where I stopped listening

Listening well is essential for user researchers. However, our relationship with sound is much older, it starts way before we begin user research. We start to listen in the womb and absorb our mother tongue. Our mother’s heartbeat inside the womb comforts us and shapes the way our brains develop.

We survive, grow, and thrive by listening, spending up to 60% of our communication time listening. And yet listening is endangered because we are constantly distracted by screaming headlines, vibrating phones, loud surrounding noises, headphones in our ears, or by our own inner voice. So, let’s look at how well we listen and how can we listen better to our stakeholders, study participants, and loved ones.

Hearing vs. Listening

A drawing showing that hearing is all sounds entering the ears while listening is is where we follow a specific sound.
Hearing vs. Listening

Close your eyes for a moment and try to see how many different sounds you can perceive.

This process, function, or power of perceiving sound is Hearing. You were surrounded by these sounds and you are able to hear them, but did you realize that you could hear all these sounds? This is what separates hearing from listening.

Listening is about paying attention to sounds or hearing something with thoughtful attention: to give consideration. So our “attention and consideration” turn hearing into listening.

Where do you stop listening?

Awareness is the first step to growth, so here’s an exercise for you, to find out where do you stop listening. I borrowed it from Kate Murphy’s amazing book, You’re Not Listening.

Think of the last conversation you had, and hold out your arm. Imagine that the story someone was telling you started at the shoulder and ended at the fingertips.
Now, mark on your arm where you stopped listening. The upper arm, the elbow, the forearm, or were you listening all the way to the fingertips :)?

When you physically ‘mark’ your arm to see where you stop listening, your brain gets a stronger understanding of how long you listen.

The drawing of an arm held out open, with a mark on the forearm to show where I stopped listening.Where I stopped listening

So, why is it so hard to listen well?

One of the main reasons why we may not listen well is the 125/400 rule — we can think a lot faster than someone can talk. We can speak at a rate of 125–145 words per minute while we can understand up to 400 words per minute. So when someone is talking, our brain tries to fill this gap with other thoughts and distractions. This gap is also known as the speech-thought differential.

Image showing that we can talk at around 125 words per minute while we can understand speech at around 400 words per minute.

Oscar Trimboli, who runs the Deep Listening podcast, talks about the four villains of listening we can turn into because of this speech-thought speed gap.

Interrupting: When we interrupt the speaker, finish their sentences, and talk over them without letting them finish.

Shrewd: When we are too busy thinking of our own response or the solutions to what the speaker is saying. We may wait for the person to finish, but we are not listening anymore.

Dramatic: When we are listening but are engaged in the drama of the story and thinking about the history around the story rather than being present and listening.

Lost: When we get distracted by our own thoughts and are not engaged in the discussion.

Four sketches to show different types of listening villains
Four types of listening villains according to Oscar Trimboli

I am guilty of being the ‘Shrewd’ or the ‘Lost’ listening villain in discussions, especially those beyond user studies. Instead of being present and curious, sometimes I start thinking of the solution to someone’s problem already — while the actual ‘solution’ maybe just listening to them. Or something the speaker says sparks a whole chain of thoughts within me.

What kind(s) of listening villain you might be?

Now that you have a better idea of how well you listen, let’s look at how you can listen better.

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