You have got the research approach, methodology nailed, recruited the right respondents, crafted your discussion guide and ready to go on field. I would like to explore upping your game by the way you LISTEN.

Before we get to the listening part, first question to ask: Is your entry well taken of? You may be asking… what ‘entry’? This will mean making sure the Context is set up well and proper. What I mean is the purpose of the session, the process and the permission to proceed. What you want to achieve is a shared goal and mutual understanding between you and the respondent.

Next, making sure that the Setting is conducive in terms of time, place and mood. Simply put, do you have the right environment for this interview? Think about basic things like sound/noise level, temperature, privacy, etc.

Now, how is your Being? How are you showing up as a moderator? Are you present (You have my full attention.)? Are you open (I’m curious. I react to your answers with meaningful questions.)? Are you connected (I am looking into your eyes and connecting with you emotionally)?

Once the above is in place, this will likely help you ‘support’ the respondent in the conversation.

We are now entering the interview session with our Discussion Guide. Here’s where you have crafted a bunch of powerful questions and are all ready to extract findings from your respondents. You’ve probably heard this too many times… yes, ask at least 5x whys. I’ve always been awkward about the 5 whys, I mean I know the reason why we ask “why” but this method has always felt fake and forced to me. I don’t mean to say there’s no value but isn’t it more natural to really listen to the other party and respond accordingly? And then ask why when it calls for it.

So, question asked. Answer came. Now, how are you listening?

“Listening is a matter of paying deep genuine attention, with eyes open and seeing, mind open and learning, heart open and feeling. This is how we pay fundamental respect to our conversation partner and the dialogue itself.”
— R. Cooper and A. Sawaf, Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Business

Active Listening
If you are present, open and connected, this will be easier. I said easier, not easy… *sweat smile* because Active listening requires you to be fully engaged. You are listening attentively and intently. You are mirroring while the other person is speaking whilst withholding judgment and advice.
Try to identify one to three key terms for mirroring (but never use more than five). This technique can be especially effective when you’re repeating words that your partner just said. Mirroring subtly lets the other party know you’re paying attention to what they’re saying.

  • Your respondent: “It’s such a tough job to manage all the inventory, I have a million products and the stock keeps changing, and it takes me hours just to manage it on the app.”
  • You: “Hours to manage the stock?”

This is effective not just for user interviews, try applying it to parties or conversations you have with your friends. By mirroring, it gives space for the other party to elaborate and offer additional details. This expands what you know about them and gives you more information to dig deeper.

When you are able to ask yourself “How open am I in my listening?”, it gives you basis to expand your capacity to accept others are different from you and generates curiosity and mutual respect in your interview sessions.

In communications, 7 percent of a person’s effort is conveyed via spoken words, 38 percent by tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language .As you are listening for the verbal language, what is just as important and often neglected are the non-verbal language. Look out for the body language: is it contracted or open as the respondent is describing the situation? How about their tone of voice, since it is more than 5 times as important as what they are actually saying. Are their verbal language aligned to their non-verbal language?

Empathic Listening
You can try this technique when your respondent is not very expressive. However, do not assume that what you think he/she may be feeling is the truth. Always check back with them for validation.

  • Your respondent: “I get an error every few mins while uploading items on some days.”
  • You: “I’m guessing that you are feeling frustrated when you cannot upload the items properly. Is that correct?”.

You may also be detecting non-verbal cues like emotions in their tone-of-voice or body languages or facial expressions, but it may not be what they are saying. Here’s where you can point it out to them and again, ask for confirmation.

  • You: “It sounds/looks like you are feeling frustrated with the workflow now. Am I right?”
  • Your respondent: “Yes.”
  • You: “Will you please share more about it?”

By being watchful and curious, it will help you dig deeper into why exactly they are feeling frustrated. By going deeper, you may eventually find out the real reason to their frustrations: Perhaps it is taking time away from their rest time or time with family.

“As you authentically seek to understand, you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give him psychological air. You also help him work through his own thoughts and feelings… [If you do this], there will be times when you will be literally stunned by the pure knowledge and understanding that will flow to you from another human being.” — Steven Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)

Shhh… One last secret weapon…

Yes, the Golden Silence. By comfortably holding the silent space, you give the respondent the opportunity to potentially reveal more information than you could have gotten by asking direct questions.

You may even deviate from our Discussion Guide (DG) a little, *gasp!* but if that helps you dig a bit deeper, then why not? As researchers, it is important to be aware when it is too deep and when it no longer serves the research objectives. You can then always say “Ok, that was really insightful! Let me quickly refer back to this (DG) to see if I missed any questions.”. This will give you a window to get back on track with the DG.

Do not get stuck and sucked into the stories.

Yes, it sounds like a lot is happening and your mind is already racing with the questions to ask and I am now suggesting that you look after all these as well!? Well, we all can get better. *wink*

To recap, here are the tips to level up your listening skills.

  • Take care of your entry – Make sure respondents are aware of the context, is the environment setting conducive, are you emotionally and mentally (being) ready to have this interview?
  • Active Listening – Are you present, open and connected?
  • Empathic Listening – Watch out for verbal and non-verbal language. Reflect and confirm them.
  • The Golden Silence – Nothing to say here! Yes don’t say anything. Shh…

Try practicing these in your daily conversations with family, friends and colleagues. Start observing how it is working or not working. Once you start to practice and hone the art of listening, you will find yourself getting better and natural at this. I am still practicing myself! Have fun! If you have other techniques you use, do share 🙂