I’ve written a lot about the importance of listening and active listening in design, but it occurred to me that it might help to get more specific about how listening happens.

Shutting up (some say if you’re doing more than 10% of the talking, you are talking too much) is a good start, but sometimes just being quiet makes for a bit too much … quiet.

It’s important for the person speaking to know that you hear them, and are interested in what they have to say. Your steady silence or continuous eye contact can start to feel relentless and unsettling. However, if you’re really listening, those behaviors are less important. People usually know whether or not they have your respectful attention. That’s the kind of listening that makes for good design (not to mention good relationships).

Beyond giving attention, asking clarifying questions is a way to keep both parties genuinely engaged.

But first, check yourself.

Even if you disagree, look for ways to respect the message and the person: seek common ground.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask as an active listener. Not all of these are appropriate for all situations! If your goal is to understand the other person as well as you can, that will be the guide that tells you what questions to ask and how to ask them.

Note: Of course these are not written in everyone’s natural communication style. Please do use the questions below as prompts to create respectful clarifying questions that feel more natural to you.

Ask questions to make sure you…

really understand their terminology:

(I try to catch myself when I’m making assumptions about what a person means by a term they’re using.)

“When you say xxx, I want to make sure I’m on the same page (or “…I’m following you” or “…I’m not making assumptions about what you mean”): what do you mean by xxx?”

really understand their preferences, feelings:

(Unless I know the person well, I usually avoid questions like, “How did that make you feel?” It tends to feel too prying.)

If it’s not clear whether or not something was liked, ask “I can’t tell whether you like that or not. Is that something you like?”

really understand their displeasure:

What do you wish it did/was/had instead?

What was the worst part about that?

really understand their pleasure:

What’s your favorite part about it?

really understand the quantity:

How many? or How many is too much? and How many is just right?

Same (if discussing lengths of time) with How long? How long is too long? How long is the right amount?

really understand!

I understood you up to xxx, but now I’m lost. What am I missing?

What am I missing?

Is there a situation in a design discovery (or really, just about any other) conversation that I have left out? I’ll leave comments on for a couple of months. After that feel free to contact me with suggestions.

One last thing: One of the best articles I’ve come across on this topic is by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman for the Harvard Business Review, What Great Listeners Actually Do, drawing insights from a 2016 behavior analysis of 3,492 (business focused) participants.


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