“Listen Like You Mean It” (Book Review)

“Too often, we “solve” for miscommunication by focusing only on what we say and how we’re saying it: if we could only get our message across, things would be much easier.” It’s a powerful statement taken from “Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection” by Ximena Vengoechea. Vengoechea is an experienced user researcher and manager, and she has spent a large chunk of her professional and personal life on listening. The main thesis of her book “Listen Like You Mean It” is that if we don’t turn our attention to our ability to listen, we risk turning our conversation partners into audiences rather than equal collaborators.

Image Credit: Ximena Vengoechea

To cultivate what Vengoechea refers to as a “listening mindset”, we need to stay away from “surface listening” and embrace “empathetic listening” instead:

  • Surface listening is the act if hearing the literal – but not emotional – content of a conversation, often at the expense of our conversation partner’s feelings. Vengoechea explains that one of the most common – and easiest – listening mistakes we can make in surface listening mode is to project our own feelings, ideas or experiences onto others (and risk missing signals that our perspectives may differ).
  • Empathetic listening happens when we deliberately slow things down and seek to understand others’ inner worlds. It means taking in what another person is saying – or not saying – with the intent to understand and relate to them on a human level, imagining what someone else might be feeling.

To listen empathetically, we need to listen with humility and curiosity. Vengoechea stresses that the key to effective empathetic listening is to always counterbalance what people say with what they do. This means paying attention to how our conversation partner is feeling in the moment, observing someone else’s body language (nonverbal, gestural cues), word choice (the language we use) as well as voice and tone (tenor, pitch, cadence).

In the book, Vengoechea shares a lot of useful phrases and questions that we can use to coax out an honest opinion from our conversation partner or to encourage them to be more specific. For example:

  • “Help me understand what you mean by _____”
  • “What do you (like, dislike) about _____?”
  • “Tell me how you really feel”

To be a more effective listener, we must understand our default listening mode, undercover what our conversation partner needs from us in a given conversation, and adapt accordingly. These are the most common default listening modes – each with its own strengths and weaknesses – to recognise in conversations, both in others and ourselves:

  • The Explainer – Explainers have an answer for everything, especially when it comes to our feelings. (You’re feeling burned out? It must be because of our culture of overworking)
  • The Validator – It can feel great to talk to a Validator, especially when you’re in need of a pick-me-up (Yeah, it’s their fault! They don’t understand you!).
  • The Identifier – Identifying happens when a listener likens their experience to the speaker’s and brings a conversation back to them. (I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same when. It’s like how when I _____)
  • The Problem-Solver – Problem-Solvers have a solution for everything and are the perfect sounding board when you need to make progress or improve an idea. The catch is when a Problem-Solver solves “problems” that don’t exist. You might have simply been thinking aloud, but to a Problem-Solver in overdrive, everything you say is an opportunity to fix, solve, or rectify.
  • The Nurse – The Nurse puts your needs above theirs. It’s never too late to run an errand on your behalf, or too much to tend to when you’re feeling down.
  • The Empath – Empaths have an uncanny way of tuning into your emotional experience – sometimes even before you do. To be most effective, Empaths must read cues carefully and ensure that there’s trust in the relationship. (I sense you are feeling weighted down lately, is everything OK?)
  • The Interrupter – Interrupters are always one step ahead of us – or so they think. At their best, Interrupters make spirited conversation partners. At their worst, Interrupters can be tiring – as quickly as they jump in, it can feel like everyone else is shut out.
  • The Interviewer – Interviewers are know to ask their conversation partners lots of questions. Their genuine curiosity can make us feel valued. Nevertheless, asking too many questions can make conversations feel like interrogations.
  • The Daydreamer – Daydreamers are often lost in thought during conversations. Whether due to rich imaginations or anxious minds, their tendency to distract isn’t personal, but it can make us feel less than worthy of their time.

Vengoechea offers a number of clarifying questions that we can use when we feel our default listening mode isn’t the right match for our conversation partner or when the conversation feels stuck:

  • This seems important. What would be most useful at this moment?
  • Would hearing [a different perspective, some advice, a similar experience] help?
  • I have some idea, but I want to make sure I know what you’re looking for. Would it be welcome to share [my perspective, advice, etc.]?
  • Would it be useful if …?
  • Would you like me to listen or respond?

Whereas clarifying questions help us move a conversation forward, connecting questions are framed in such a way to deepen a conversations. Connecting questions elicit an open response, without suggestion or biasing towards a particular reply. Therapists, for example, frequently use connecting questions like “Tell me about your relationships at work” or “How did it make you feel when that happened?”. Both prompt the client to share how they’re feeling, what their beliefs are, and what values they hold, without cornering them into a specific response, and instead guiding them past the surface to understand what some of the core, root issues or emotions driving their behaviour might be.

Vengoechea also covers exploratory questions, usually beginning with “how” or “what”:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • What does “ideal” look like?
  • How would you approach …?
  • What would you do if …?
  • What’s the biggest risk to …?

“Listen Like You Mean It” is filled with valuable tips and techniques about how to get the most out of conversations. For example, Vengoechea shares helpful pointers about getting feedback, delving deeper or moving things along.

Get feedback:

  • Does that answer your question?
  • Have I understood correctly?
  • Is that what you’re looking for?
  • Does that seem like an accurate recap?

Delving deeper:

  • I think it’s worth spending more time here
  • I want to go back to something you said earlier
  • You mentioned something that piqued my interest
  • Let’s give this some more thought

Moving things along:

  • I want to switch gears for a minute …
  • I’m also hoping to talk about …
  • Let’s make sure we also cover …
  • I want to make sure we get to catch up on …

“Listen Like You Mean It” reminded me of reading “The Art of Active Listening” by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker. What I particularly like about Ximena Vengoechea’s book is that it’s clearly written from the perspective of someone who’s made a career out of listening actively and has developed lots of practical listening tools over the years.

Main learning point: For me, the biggest takeaway from “Listen Like You Mean It” is the different default listening modes that Vengoechea describes; “The Problem-Solver” listening mode is definitely one that applies to me, for good and bad!

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