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Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn hired me to improve their products by listening to users. This is what it taught me about having meaningful conversations.

  • Ximena Vengoechea’s job is to listen to users to help companies improve their products.
  • She’s learned lessons about how to communicate that could apply in any setting.
  • Avoid interrupting, summarize what you’ve heard, and learn to manage your “listening mode.”

My job as a user researcher is to understand what makes people tick. I’ve done it for Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn to help them build better products.

I began doing this in 2012, for a small New York City based startup. At the time, I’d never heard of UX research, but my interest in psychology and product design, and my experience as a keen observer of people made it an obvious fit.

I learned the role on the job and was later recruited by LinkedIn in Silicon Valley. I went on to conduct research at other large-scale tech companies, like Twitter and Pinterest.

I’ve talked to strangers about subjects as personal as their money woes, career fears and aspirations, and how their identities are tied to the brands they wear and products they buy.

It could be focus groups or one-on-ones, in-person, over the phone, or over video call.

These conversations were ultimately about improving products.

But they taught me how to listen – really listen – and these lessons have helped me have more meaningful conversations.

These are my five things I’ve learned.

Assume you are in the presence of an expert. 

Sometimes, people hesitate to share what they really think. It can be intimidating to admit to me, a complete stranger, that they, well, hate our app, site, or a set of features of which we are really proud.

They might be completely underwhelmed by a redesign or utterly confused by new features we thought were basic. But they hold back on sharing their true feelings. 

That’s why I start my sessions by telling participants I’m there to learn from them. There are no wrong answers, and they cannot hurt my feelings.

I let them know that they are the expert, and I am the student, ready to observe, appreciate, and understand their perspective. 

This completely changes the dynamic of our conversations. The users can speak freely in my presence. When they know I am there to learn, they don’t feel shy about saying, “I really wouldn’t use this feature” or “I don’t understand this at all.”

Assuming I am in the presence of an expert is how I learn when a product idea or feature is falling short and when it is exceeding expectations. There are many times I know a product is half-baked or ill-conceived; emphasising the person’s role as an expert allows them to admit they know it, too.

We all bring preconceived notions, opinions, judgments, and assumptions into our everyday conversations. But if we can set these aside and embrace the idea that we are here to learn and are open to being wrong, we will go much further. Everyone is an expert in something. We should let them share it.

Observe, don’t interrupt. 

I once spoke with participants about their experience with meal planning. After several weeks of tracking their food routines, they invited me into their homes for “cook-alongs” — a chance for me to observe their cooking routines to help me understand their needs more deeply.

During our sessions, a thought or question might enter my mind that I wanted to share or ask immediately, but if I did, I might miss out on valuable information. In interrupting, I might accidentally influence the natural course of events. Participants might even begin to “perform” their routine for me.

So I stayed quiet. Instead, the answers to the questions I had wanted to ask began to surface organically, without my prodding. I learned much more by not interrupting and simply observing. 

We often have an urge to interrupt others — because we’re excited to share a story, make a point, offer a correction, disagree, or ask a question.

But in interrupting, we can lose out on learning something valuable. It is best to wait and see what we can learn through patience and observation instead.

Avoid closed, leading questions in favor of open-ended, encouraging ones. 

Most research sessions last 60 minutes or less, but an hour with a stranger is not much time to get to the bottom of a topic, especially if the topic is a sensitive one.

I once conducted a study to understand people’s relationship with their personal finances. We talked about money dreams and money realities, budgeting concerns, and what participants’ day-to-day money management looked like.

Broaching this sensitive topic could have led to a standstill with participants who were too uncomfortable to share their experience. Most people don’t particularly like talking about money, especially when they feel they don’t have enough of it. So I used open-ended questions that elicit more than a one-word response to help participants open up. 

Open-ended questions do not lead others toward a particular response, but they lead the way instead. Instead of asking, “Do you have a healthy relationship with money?”, I might say, “Tell me about your relationship with money.” This removes any implicit judgment and is bound to get an answer that is more nuanced and complex because I am allowing others to lead the way.

Asking open-ended questions means starting with starting “How” and “What” instead of “Do”, “Is” or “Are,” and using encouraging phrases such as “Say more about that,” “Walk me through that,” or “What else?” to nudge the conversation along.

This technique is especially useful when a direct report is providing a tight-lipped update on their work, your partner holds back on sharing how they are feeling, or your child gives you a one-word response on how school was.

Summarize what you’ve heard to confirm your understanding. 

In a research setting, the stakes are high. In one study I conducted about how reporters use social media in their storytelling process, I learned a lot about the tools, processes, and tricks reporters on a deadline use to file a story quickly.

Getting any of those insights wrong would have led my team down the wrong path and hurt our chances of being able to build a platform reporters could rely on. If any ambiguity existed, I would have to clarify my understanding before moving onto the next part of our session. 

In real life, the risks are equally great. Misunderstandings can lead a manager to assign the wrong project at work, a partner to buy the wrong anniversary gift for a loved one, and, more deeply, for friends, family, and lovers to feel alienated and disconnected from one another. 

The best way to avoid a misunderstanding is to clarify what you’ve heard by playing it back to your conversation partner.

That can sound like: “What I think I’m hearing is … Is that right?,” “My understanding is … Does that capture it?,” or “It sounds like … Is that a fair interpretation?”

Asking these questions allows others to correct our understanding if it’s wrong or further our understanding if it’s right.

It’s rare to hear our feelings or experiences in someone else’s words, so it is a gift to feel heard and seen in this way.

Manage your emotions and energy, and learn what your default listening mode is.

Effective listening isn’t just zoning in on someone else. It’s being aware of your own experience in the moment. 

Try saying, “I’m noticing I am having an emotional reaction to this, and I’m having trouble hearing you. Can we take a break and come back to this?” or “This conversation is important to me, but I am realizing how tired I am, and I’m having trouble giving it the attention it deserves. Mind if we regroup tomorrow after a good night’s rest?”

This self-awareness can help us recognize more easily what we bring into a conversation and better adapt to what’s needed in the moment.

It can also help adapt your default listening mode — the filter or lens you hear the world through that’s usually informed by your personality and early relationships.

Each mode has its powers but also its pitfalls. The “problem-solver” mode can be helpful when brainstorming a solution, but it can be onerous when problem solving isn’t needed.

Similarly, an “identifier” listening mode can be both encouraging or discouraging, depending on the conversation. When others crave affirmation, hearing “I know what’s that like” can be comforting. But this mode can feel dismissive to a conversation partner with a deep need to be seen.

Being aware of your mode allows you to recognize when it’s a fit for a given conversation and when it’s not so that you can switch modes as needed.

Ximena Vengoechea is the author of “Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming The Lost Art Of True Connection,” published by Penguin Random House.

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