Listening, like any other communication skill, can be improved. Ximena Vengoechea has spent her career facilitating hundreds of conversations at Linkedin, Twitter, Pinterest and more. It’s her job to uncover the truth behind how people use- and think- about products and services, and she does that by deploying the art of listening.
In Ximena’s new book, ‘Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection’ Ximena offers an essential guide to listening for our times. She reveals tried-and-true strategies homed in her own research sessions, and drawn from interviews with marriage counsellors, podcasts hosts, life coaches, journalists, filmmakers, and other listening experts.
In this interview, I spoke to Ximena Vengoechea about how we can listen better. We discuss how to quickly build rapport with strangers, how to ask the right questions to help unlock what people need to say, how to navigate conversations that have gone off the rails, how to set boundaries and protect ourselves from toxic conversations, and how to master the art of listening for deeper and more meaningful human connection.
Q: Do we realise the true breadth of listening?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: We don’t think about listening very often. There are multiple levels, and a lot of us engage is circus listening where you show-up in a conversation and literally just catch enough what is being said to be polite, continue the conversation and not get fired! The kind of listening, which is rich, deep, and important is empathic listening. That’s where you hear the literal, but also catch the subtext and meaning of what’s being said. It’s where you notice what’s not being said and understand why. This is the type of listening that builds true human-to-human connection, it’s special.
Q: How do we set the stage to listen?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: To set the stage for conversations, you must start with a listening mindset – and that means bringing qualities like humility, curiosity, and empathy. Humility is important- often we go into a conversation thinking about the point we want to get across, or how we are going to convince the other person to agree with us. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes it’s below the surface.
Humility means that we come into a conversation with a mindset of, ‘I can learn something from this person.’ It’s a shift from being the teacher to the student. It’s about putting aside all those preconceived notions, opinions, assumptions, and judgements we have so that we can really hear the other person.
Once you’ve opened that path to actually hearing out the other person, you can start to get curious and go a little deeper and start to understand why this particular topic is so interesting to them…. What else you could learn from them…. What else you could learn about them…. This gets you closer to understanding someone from their point of view and that leads to empathy- understanding how someone feels about something at the emotional level. You don’t have to have the exact shared experience of what that person is going through- but you will have had similar emotional experiences, and you can tap into that.
Q: Is it important to clarify roles in a conversation?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: It’s important to clarify roles in a conversation, particularly in the context of what we are bringing to a conversation at any given moment. Part of this is what I call default listening mode. Each of us has a way we naturally show up in a conversation, a filter that we hear things through. You may be a problem solver… someone who hears everything through the lens of, ‘OK, what is the problem here that needs to be solved… what Ideas do I have to solve it?’ – you may be a mediator who always thinks, ‘What am I hearing from everyone’s point of view? Is anyone really at fault? How can we get along?
There are eleven common listening modes:
- The explainer – who has an answer for everything.
- The validator – who cheerleads
- The identifier – who knows exactly what you mean because they felt the same way when…
- The problem-solver – who have a solution for everything.
- The nurse – who puts your needs above theirs.
- The defused – who plays down tense or uncomfortable situations.
- The mediator – who tries to look at things from all angles, and assumes good intent.
- The empath – who tune into emotional experience, often before you do.
- The interrupter – who is always one step ahead (or so they think)
- The interviewer – who asks lots of questions.
- The daydreamer – who is lost in thought during conversation.
Every mode is good, but every mode has pitfalls, and what really matters is being able to know which mode to bring at any given time as it affects what you hear, and how you are heard. You want to make sure that the other person’s need matches the mode that we’re stepping into.
Q: How do you deepen the conversation?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: Asking questions can be really powerful to deepen conversation. Sometimes we ask questions we think will deepen a conversation, but we don’t realise that we’re actually narrowing and even cutting off a conversation. If we ask questions that are open-ended, for example, questions that start with how or what we get much broader answers than questions that start with are, do or is (which can often yield a one-word response, yes or no). You can also inadvertently lead someone by asking if they’re nervous about something… or angry about something… in that situation you can open things up by asking, ‘so, how do you feel about X?’
It’s not about opening things up and walking away – which can feel chaotic and aimless – but nudging things along. Body language can give you a lot of cues that there is something more that needs exploring or another path that needs encouraging.
Q: How can we approach difficult or polarising conversations?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: In heated or polarising conversation, sometimes our instincts kick-in to correct the other person or repeat our position. Those are great moments to stop and ask questions instead. That’s how you keep a conversation open rather than just getting a view across.
In difficult conversations, it’s extremely important to be aware of what you’re bringing to a conversation and what you’re feeling. Often in a difficult conversation it becomes harder because you’re emotionally activated in some way. Something someone says may cut against a core belief, and you sense it as conflict. The emotional and physical reaction you experience there is called a hotspot – and those are the moments where you should say, ‘you know what, I’m having a strong emotional response to this, I need to hit pause…’ that’s going to be far more productive than trying to barrel through ad make it work. When you are feeling emotional, you simply cannot ‘hear’ the other person anymore!
Q: How powerful are pauses in conversations?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: Pausing and allowing silence into conversations is something that we often feel really uncomfortable doing… there’s a reason it’s called an awkward silence. We think that if there’s silence in a conversation, it means that we’re boring or have lost the other person or that there’s nothing left to say. If we introduce some pauses… or embrace the natural pauses in a conversation… we’ll often find that the other person was pausing to think or was gearing up to share something hard and just needed the space to do that.
My recommendation is, particularly if you’re someone like me who is kind of always ready to chime in with a thought, is to count to 10. Let the person complete their thought and just count to 10 in your head. And it’s going to feel awkward and long, but usually the other person will chime in before you hit 10. Most people will step into the space.
Q: Does a conversation need a leader?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: It’s pretty common- in group discussions in particular- to have someone who (at least in theory) is running the meeting or in charge of a project. That doesn’t always translate to actively managing a conversation.
If you sense a conversation is going off into different tangents, you could choose to be the person who says, ‘that’s a really interesting point, but why don’t we go back to the original goal at hand here…’ – if you sense someone is dominating a conversation, you could be the person who says, ‘thanks for contributing that idea… what do you folks on the other side of the table think?’ These are just two examples but fundamentally the goals are to get back to the agenda or include more voices not by shutting someone down or excluding them, but by acknowledging and redirecting.
Q: How can we adapt our conversation skills for the online world?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: There are some best practices around how you position your camera, how you use hands to communicate and how you give people more cues and receive more cues.
During this shift to more remote working, we have really leaned into video calling. It has its virtues, but we mustn’t forget that there are times when the humble phone call is better. When you’re having a difficult conversation for example – you can still hear emotions and cues on the phone, but it may be hard to look at someone, make eye contact, and still be honest and vulnerable.
You have to think about what you’re trying to achieve in a conversation, what’s the goal. If you’re trying to tell a story or explain a trend you’re seeing, you may need a video call to walk someone through the assets and get feedback.
If you start an email and realise it’s getting to 5-paragraphs long, it’s a good sign that you should probably have a conversation instead. If there’s lots of caveats and what-ifs on an email? Again, it’s a sign that you should probably just have a conversation.
You also need to know your audience and think about how that person, or those people, will be most present and most receptive to you.
It’s balancing what message do you need to get across, and then what have you in this time where we have observed people and how they respond online and in these other forums, what do you know about that that can help you pick the right format?
Q: How can we rapidly build rapport?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: The number one tool we have in rapport building is to demonstrate curiosity. There’s research which shows that the most favourable way to appear in social settings, and to build relationships quickly is to show you are interested rather than interesting.
There are so many settings where we want to form bonds quickly and we all think about how we need to present ourselves… what story to tell… what to reveal now versus later… but the research shows that the best thing to do is to focus on the other person and be curious. If you think about it, when you leave a conversation with someone you’ve just met, the conversations that are most memorable are the ones where someone has taken an interest in you.
People love talking about themselves and there’s something special about when someone is genuinely (not superficially) interested in what you have to say and who you are – it’s encouraging, inviting and creates a real moment of acceptance. It’s a win-win.
Q: How do we exit conversations?
[Ximena Vengoechea]: When improving our listening skills- the goal is not to just become a vessel for other people and to be perceiving non-stop, we have lives! Learning to exit a conversation is really important, and there are a few ways to do that….
If someone tends to go over the time limit, or takes more time than needed for a conversation, you can timebox a conversation. Maybe tell the person up-front that you have 5 minutes for a conversation or tell them that you only have 15 minutes to talk- but for that time- you are all theirs! You need to set a framework and boundaries to say, ‘this is what I can offer you…’ – most people will work to that.
Another example. Let’s say – mid conversation – you have a competing priority, or just start to get tired… you’re not going to be able to be present in the way that you want to be for that person. Perhaps you say, ‘I’m having a bit of trouble being present right now, this conversation means a lot to me… can we take a breather and come back to it?’ or perhaps, ‘I’m having trouble concentrating, I’ve not eaten yet today, perhaps come with me to eat? Or we could catch-up afterwards?’ You can share exactly what’s preventing you from listening and move-on.
If you don’t have the emotional intimacy to speak that openly you can very well just say, ‘hey, I’m running really late, I have to go… it’s been great talking to you, and I won’t take up any more of your time…’ – this flips it to being respectful… ‘thanks so much, I’ll let you go now…’
Don’t forget, there’s always the possibility that the other person is also trying to think about how to exit a conversation, you may in fact be doing both of you a favour by saying, ‘hey, here’s a boundary that I have that I need to communicate so we both go off, parting ways, to do our thing…’