Two techniques to listen better

Learn a strategy to recognize if you are listening well and to listen better.
Art by author

How can we listen better?

Listening well is the ability to help someone tell their story well and to elicit information without dominating or leading the conversation too much.
Earlier, I shared some tests to check how well you listen and why might you be listening poorly.

Here are two simple techniques which could help us listen better.

Shift and Support responses

Chares Derber, an American sociologist, transcribed over a hundred dinner conversations for his book The Pursuit of Attention. He said that we exchange and distribute attention by listening, and found two kinds of responses in conversations — support response and shift response.

The listener keeps the spotlight on the speaker with a support response and moves it to themselves with a shift response.

Support response: When we encourage the speaker to elaborate so that we can understand them better and we ‘support’ them in telling their story. This contributes to good listening.

Shift response: When we move the attention away from the speaker to ourselves by starting to talk about our own experiences instead of listening to theirs. It may also include showing impatience, being defensive, etc.
When we listen well, we keep the spotlight on the speaker, by being curious and asking open-ended questions. In contrast, poor listening involves more shift responses that disrupt the conversation and move the attention away from the speaker.

My experience with a Shift response

This was about 9 years ago. I was presenting user study results to a product team, the product was about to be released, and the pressure was high. But, the results showed that the users did not understand one of the key components of the interface. A member of the audience said, “This study is faulty. These results can’t be true.”

I could have been curious and asked “Tell me more…”. Instead, I started to describe how our study was scientific, a.k.a. how I was right. And this shifted the conversation away from the speaker to me.

In justifying and defending my position, I lost a chance to learn something new.

Chat bubbles showing a shift response which is described in the text above.When I shifted the conversation to my defense instead of asking the speaker’s concerns

Did they have other data that contradicted the data from our study? Did they have high ‘stakes’ in the system release? Did they have low confidence in me — a young, new researcher? To this day, I don’t know.

Perhaps because I feel more secure in my role now, I would tell my younger self that it’s okay to explain how we designed the study. However, it’s even better to be curious and ask why someone found the study design to be faulty.

Experience has taught me that listening to the motivations and desires of my stakeholders is of immense value. It helps me see user research from new perspectives, address people’s needs for training, and helps improve processes, and products.

So, are shift responses always bad?

Robbert van Eindhoven, a fellow writer, who trained as a mental health worker, told me that he would use shift responses strategically in his work, because shift responses can sometimes help other people elaborate.

For example,
Person A: “It hurts”
Robbert: “Tell me more..” (support)
Person A: “Yeah, it just hurts..don’t know what else to say”
Robbert: “I understand. When I am in pain, it makes me feel like…” (shift)
Person A: “Yes, I sometimes too feel…”

A drawing of the listener shifting the spotlight to themselves for a bit to help the speaker elaborate and then returns it.

In this way, Robbert would show that it is okay to be vulnerable, as well as give an example of how to elaborate on feelings. He used a shift response to move the conversation forward.

Such strategies, when used wisely, can also help in a user study. Ask questions that support the conversation. If you are at a ‘dead-end’, try sharing short, varied examples (to prevent leading them) and ask if the participants have any similar experiences.

However, the important thing to note is that in such a case we should bring the attention back to the speaker.

Thus shift/support labeling helps us be aware of when we support and shift the conversation, and why. Because once we are aware, we can decide if we want to learn or change something.

In conclusion

  • Listening is a primal sense — associated with safety, relationships, learning, good user research, and a rich life. To be listened to is to be seen.
  • It is hard to listen well because we can speak around 125 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.
  • Poor listening includes interrupting, thinking of the solutions or replies to what someone is saying, getting involved in the drama rather than understanding the speaker’s intentions, and getting lost in our own thoughts.
  • Good listening involves keeping the attention on the speaker by using shift or support responses strategically.

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