Learn to listen
Listening is arguably the most important skill you can have as an experience designer. Very very few of us know how to listen to others. It is not a skill that is taught very well at schools in general, or in universities. Most of us don't even know what it means to listen, which means that we don't even know where to begin to learn this precious and underrated skill. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "listening" as:
1: to pay attention to sound
2: to hear something with thoughtful attention
Many of you, I suspect, would say that the most relevant to experience designers is #2, however this is part of our problem. Before we can listen to somebody with thoughtful attention, we have to learn to pay attention to sound. This is not as easy as it first appears, so give it a try:
1- Sit comfortably 2- Close your eyes (it will be easier if you withdraw the other senses) 3- Listen to the sounds that are very very far away 4- Listen to the sounds that are very close to you 5- Now listen to the sounds that are somewhere in between the previous two
You should be able to comfortably, with passive alertness, do this exercise for at least 20minutes without:
- Fidgeting - Your mind wandering & losing concentration - Hearing the sound of your own voice inside your head - Having a conversation with yourself - Waiting for this exercise to end - Labeling all of the sounds individually - Effort
When you do any of these things, you cease to listen.
If you cannot focus on the noises around you with your eyes closed, whilst sitting comfortably, without your mind getting in the way, then it will be very very difficult for you to be able to really listen to somebody else talking to you, especially if you are on the phone in a busy train station, for example.
When we are listening to someone else speaking, we are not waiting for our turn to speak. Harder still, we are not listening to our inner monologue whilst they are talking. If you cannot listen to them without your inner monologue going off all the time, then all you hear are your own desires, you project your own ideas onto their words, and you never really listen to them, or even hear them.
Robert McCloskey famously said:
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Listening to somebody means that you are intently focused on that person and what they are communicating. You not only hear the sound of their voice, understand the words that are coming out of their mouth, but also see their body language, their facial expressions, and develop an understanding of what they are trying to communicate, without warping their communication with what your mind thinks they are saying. It is to listen without judgement, and without commentary, to what another person is saying.
Krishnamurti said that:
"To listen, there must be an inward quietness, a freedom from the strain of acquiring, a relaxed attention. This alert yet passive state is able to hear what is beyond the verbal conclusion. Words confuse; they are only outward means of communication; but to communicate beyond the noise of words, there must be in listening an inner passivity."
This skill is very difficult to master, and I wager that 99% of us at least (myself included) are incapable of truly listening to someone for any substantial length of time. It is certainly worth our while to get better at this, because it not only affects our work, but also every other aspect of our lives. As experience designers, we often listen to the end user, waiting to acquire that nugget of information that will help us to improve our work. When we have this attitude to listening, we are in danger of only hearing what we want to hear.
Doing the listening to sounds exercise (that I have described above), every day for at least 10mins at a time, really can help you to improve your listening skills. It is a meditation exercise primarily, as it requires your mind to be intently focused on one thing: the sounds around you and nothing else. It helps develop concentration also, and is a very peaceful thing to do. Whatever the sounds that you hear: police sirens, doors slamming, water pipes bubbling, cars humming in the distance, the washing machine churning, or even your phone going off...they are all just sounds. They're not calls to action. If you can listen to all of the sounds around you, you are no longer confining your mind to one channel. We become open and aware of everything around us. Developing this awareness itself leads to great insight.
Another important point is that when we really listen to someone, we give them the space they need, to be. Holding this space for them is a deeply compassionate and powerful thing to do.
Krishnamurti also said:
"You will find that the more you listen to everything, the greater is the silence, and that silence is not broken by noise. It is only when you are resisting something, when you are putting up a barrier between yourself and that to which you do not want to listen - it is only then that there is a struggle."
If you cannot truly listen, then all you hear is yourself.
Evelyn Glennie shows how to listen in this TED talk, enjoy - I loved this.