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UX Research leader and author of Listen Like You Mean It Ximena Vengoechea

30 March 2021
Sean BruceTia Alisha

Ximena Vengoechea is a writer, illustrator, UX researcher, and author of the newly released Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. A book two years in the making, Listen Like You Mean It draws on Vengoechea’s expertise as a researcher and manager in Silicon Valley. While it’s sure to help any aspiring or well-established research professional in the workplace, learning how to listen better, Vengoechea assures us, is a skill we could all benefit from—in the home, our relationships, and even with strangers. What we stand to gain, she says, is stronger, more meaningful relationships.

Tell us about the professional and personal experiences that led to the development of Listen Like You Mean It.

I’ve been a user researcher for nearly a decade and a writer for just about as long. I’ve always felt that if I learned something useful, it might be useful to others, too—that’s the motivation behind all of my writing, which is why so much of it centers on personal and professional development.

When I realized how much my listening skills as a researcher had helped me in my personal and professional life, it was a no-brainer to share these lessons with others. Especially in this moment, where so many of us feel alienated and lonely, I really wanted to share what I could to help bridge some of those gaps and help us feel more understood, accepted, and valued in our own lives—and to offer the same empathy and understanding to others, too. So I wrote the book, Listen Like You Mean It, which is based on my experience as a user researcher and looks at how we can become better listeners—at work, in our home lives, with friends, or even strangers—and build stronger relationships as a result. It takes the skills I learned in the UX lab and in the field and applies them to day-to-day, real-world scenarios. My hope is that readers walk away with the knowledge to improve their listening skills and the encouragement and inspiration to put them into action, so we can all feel a little more understood and connected.

The subtitle of your book is “reclaiming the lost art of true connection”—why do you think truly connecting with one another is being lost?

It’s a confluence of events: We live in a time where so many of our interactions are digitally mediated from behind a screen, which makes truly connecting—at a human-to-human level—really hard. It’s easy to feel like we’re keeping in touch but also alienated from each other. Now, with the pandemic, we’re not only digitally apart but physically apart, too, which has really just exacerbated the problem. Even when we spend time together in person, there are so many other things—emails, to-do lists, our own emotions—that can easily get in the way of really hearing and connecting with other people.

How to influence leaders and communicate the value of research

Can being a good listener make us better at creating and innovating? Is listening good for business?

Being a good listener is definitely good for business. When we are able to better hear others’ needs, we understand what is at stake in a project we are collaborating on or what will help our manager take the team to the next level. Listening is particularly impactful when it comes to creative ideation, brainstorming, and experimenting: it’s what allows us to invite all ideas into the room, to build on each other’s ideas, and to find the boundary-pushing ideas worth investing in. It’s hard to take risks and try something new if you are too afraid to listen to others’ ideas, thoughts, or opinions or if your own inner monologue is getting in the way.

What are a few quick and easy ways to improve the quality of our listening?

In the book, I talk about two kinds of listening: surface listening and empathetic listening. Surface listening is where most of us spend our time when we aren’t paying attention or listening with intention. We hear enough of a conversation to be polite, or we catch the literal words that have been said, but we miss out on gleaning deeper understanding. On the other hand, empathetic listening happens when we go beyond the literal to determine the meaning of what’s being said and the emotions your conversation partner is experiencing. The most important thing you can do to spend more time in empathetic listening mode is to come into conversations with what I call a listening mindset: empathy, humility, and curiosity. Combined, these qualities enable us to listen beyond the literal.

Who are some people you consider to have mastered the art of listening? What can we learn from them? How do they listen differently to others?

User researchers! Researchers are so good at centering a conversation on their participant rather than themselves. They are practiced in staying present, asking open-ended questions, and bringing observation into their research sessions. They’re also very good at staying neutral and not taking things personally in a session. When you take these qualities outside of a UX lab and into the real world, they’re just as effective for enabling richer conversations. The challenge is that many of us researchers switch out of “research mode” when we leave the lab, and we forget these crucial lessons or are unsure of how to apply them to our day-to-day. My book serves as a guide on how to translate those skills from the lab to the real world and helps readers identify what hurdles might be getting in the way of their listening with empathy.

What tips can you share about having difficult conversations? What do people often do wrong?

A common mistake made when having a difficult conversation is to dive right in without clueing others in on what’s about to happen. If you know you need to have a tough conversation, not only is it wise for you to prepare in advance, but it’s also wise to let the other person in on your plan. It’s the same as running a research session—you let the participant know how the conversation will go and what your intention in spending time together is. Why not give our friends, colleagues, and loved ones that same courtesy? Often a difficult topic can become much more approachable if we simply share why we are bringing it up in the first place. It’s also important to come into those conversations with an intention to understand rather than convince. There’s a huge difference! If I am trying to understand your political beliefs without convincing you to come over to my side of the political spectrum, that’s going to be a much productive conversation than if I come out swinging defending my position.

Researchers are professional listeners, but they often tell us they struggle to be heard themselves—what advice would you give to a researcher looking to convey the value of research to stakeholders?

First, you have to do good work—answer the right research question at the right time, demonstrate your understanding of the product—the basics. But most importantly, you have to know how to tell a good story. You have to know your audience, what insights or questions they are most interested in, what they might be skeptical about, even what constraints they might be facing within the organization, and then tailor your message accordingly. Think about your colleagues the way you might a research participant: what are their needs? Their motivations? Their perceptions? And how might your research findings fit into that? Once you know what someone’s needs, motivations, and perceptions are, it becomes much easier to tell a compelling story that will land with them. It’s what allows you to customize your pitch to a PM, so it’s more focused on impact, to an engineer, so it’s more focused on data, and to a designer, so it’s more focused on the user, for example.

Beyond professional development, what do we stand to gain from learning how to listen better?

So much! Becoming a better listener helps us to deepen our friendships, strengthen our partnerships, know and understand our children, and learn a lot about ourselves, too. The best conversations are those where each party feels heard and understood. When that happens, we tend to open up more, to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to be ourselves. Feeling safe and secure enough in conversation for others to be themselves—and for you to be yourself—is one of the greatest gifts of empathetic listening.

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