How to Be a Better Listener: From the UX Research Lab to the Dinner Table

Explore this important conversation with Ximena Vengoechea, author of “Listen Like You Mean It”, to learn helpful insights about how to strengthen your relatio…

Team Designlab
Team Designlab
Jun 28, 2021
Min Read

Ximena Vengoechea is the author and illustrator of “Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection" and an experienced manager, mentor, and UX research leader previously at Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Her work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., The Washington post, Newsweek, and Huffington Post. She is a contributor at Fast Company and The Muse, and writes Letters from Ximena, a newsletter on tech, culture, career, and creativity. 

We sat down with Ximena following her recent webinar with the Designlab community about tried and tested listening techniques pulled from the UX research lab. Read on to learn helpful insights about how to strengthen your relationships through listening...

Hey Ximena! Thanks so much for allowing our readers to get to know you better. To start, please tell us, what exactly is empathetic listening?

Empathetic listening is listening with the intent to understand others—particularly their needs, motivations, perceptions, and emotional experience—and connect with them more deeply. This is different to how many of us instinctively show up in conversation—usually, we are distracted, paying more attention to our own thoughts than what someone else is saying, or even interrupting or changing the topic because we are bored, uncomfortable, or unaware the other person isn’t finished speaking yet. Unfortunately, this kind of surface listening does little to strengthen our relationships.

How does empathetic listening strengthen our relationships?

Empathetic listening helps us to better understand others on a human level. When we practice empathetic listening, we create space to hear what others have to say, and in turn generate trust and allow for vulnerability to enter the conversation. This leads us to feel uniquely heard, understood, accepted, and appreciated for who we are in conversation. This in turn helps us to collaborate better, gain greater alignment, navigate difficult conversations with more ease, and strengthen our relationships overall.

We’re sold! So what are the best ways for us to practice empathetic listening day-to-day?

A listening mindset is the foundation for being a thoughtful listener. It’s composed of three traits: humility, curiosity, and empathy.

  1. Humility is being ready to learn, keeping an open mind, not assuming we have all the right answers, and believing we are in the presence of an expert.
  2. Curiosity allows you to go deeper in conversation. It is often easier to be curious about topics we are interested in or opinions we agree with, but you can stay curious despite the topic if you discover the why (others’ motivation/interest in the topic) and ask what else (even if you are an expert, there is always more to learn)
  3. Empathy means trying to understand what the other person is experiencing— even if you don’t have direct experience with their particular situation. It’s focusing on the underlying emotions (shame, fear, joy, grief, etc.) and putting yourself in others’ shoes.

In research sessions, just as in real life, we can bring these traits in to go much deeper in conversation.

We can certainly see how these traits would be applicable to UX research! How can your book “Listen Like You Mean It” help UXers?

The listening lessons shared in this book come directly from my experience as a user researcher. Although the book is not a straight guide to conducting UX research, aspiring and new researchers can learn a lot through the UX stories I share, as well as the moderating tips and tricks I include. It also provides a look behind the scenes into the types of studies I’ve conducted in the past. The scripts I provide are for everyday life, but can be modified depending on the situation.

We love how your work in UX inspired this book that is actually so widely applicable—who else did you interview outside of the UX world when researching for “Listen Like You Mean It”?

I spoke with fellow listening experts, such as personal coaches, therapists, podcast hosts, doctors, and documentary filmmakers. The biggest takeaway for me is how much the line between self and other can be blurred in conversation if we aren’t careful. It can be surprisingly easy to internalize what others are experiencing and feeling and to carry their load with us throughout our day. This is part of why I dedicate an entire chapter of my book to learning how to rest and recover from empathetic listening, and boost ourselves back up when needed.

Empathetic listening can definitely be draining. For those in the UX field who are listening often, how can they recover from this?

Listener’s drain is physical or emotional exhaustion due to empathetic listening. It can feel like: headaches, fatigue, mind-wandering, judgmental thoughts in place of empathy, overwhelm and an inability to process more information. It may be caused by having too many empathetic listening conversations, conversations that are too long, or surrounding particular relationships (for example a family member, mentee, colleague, or client who always needs a lot from you, emotionally speaking). It is natural to feel some degree of drain after empathetic listening given that this kind of listening is intentional and effortful, but it’s important to manage it before it becomes too intense. 

To manage listener’s drain and recover from it, I recommend recognizing your limits for empathetic listening (how many conversations of this kind you can have per day or with a certain person) and honoring them; practicing graceful exits from conversations to prevent becoming overwhelmed (more on this technique in my book); releasing any tension or stress from such conversations by journaling, sharing with a therapist or trusted confidant, or exercising.

Those are really excellent tips. We found a piece of advice you gave in your recent webinar with us particularly helpful—around encouraging listeners to clarify their role in a conversation early on. How can people do that?

Reading minds is impossible, so it’s best to just ask if you are uncertain about your role in a conversation. If you’re not sure what is needed from you, you can ask questions like:

  • Would it be helpful if… [I offered advice, shared my perspective, etc.]?
  • Would it be useful to hear… [a similar experience I had, a different point of view, etc.]?
  • My instinct is to… [brainstorm solutions, remind you that you’re doing great, etc.] Would that be welcome?
  • Would you like me to listen or respond?

Thank you for that. You are so multi-talented: writer, illustrator, UX researcher—and it all ties together so beautifully with visual storytelling. Did you always know this is what you wanted to do? 

Thank you! I’ve always been interested in people’s stories. I was an avid reader as a kid, a passion that stayed with me in college as a Literature major. I took art classes as a kid, too, and then worked at an art gallery for a short while before landing in the tech industry. I’ve always had an interest in story (people’s histories and experiences), form (how stories are told, visually or otherwise), and the relationship between the two, although I couldn’t have anticipated how these disparate threads would eventually come together. 

I had no idea UX research was a career until my mid twenties, but when I discovered there was a role that would allow me to hear and tell people’s stories, I was stoked. My interest in technology made it that much more exciting. If you ask me what I’ll be doing in ten years, I couldn’t tell you—but that to me is part of the beauty of it. All I know is that my core interest of understanding what makes people tick and how to communicate that to the world is something that has been with me a long time, and I expect will stay with me no matter what shape it takes in the future.

We think many of our students and readers will resonate with your career progression story. You’ve worked at some of the biggest names in tech, like Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn. What is your advice for UX professionals hoping to break into the world of tech?

This is a great question, and part of why I created a special column, Tech It From Me, that covers questions like these in my newsletter. Some thoughts in a nutshell, with links for those who wish to go deeper: 

To learn more from Ximena, check out her recent webinar with the Designlab community!

Connect with Ximena on Instagram & Twitter (@xsvengoechea), and by subscribing to her newsletter.

Learn more about UI/UX-related topics such as empathetic listening from industry professionals like Ximena when you enroll in our UX Academy program. You’ll be matched with one of our 500+ mentors from diverse backgrounds and industries across the UI/UX/product design space. 

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.