A Designer's Secret Weapon: Active Listening

Image Source: Listen to ME!

One of the key skills I noticed great designers have is the ability to engage in Active Listening.
I was lucky. I managed to pick up this skill 6-7 years ago in a training seminar and it has been vital in helping my access situations quickly, make good decisions, resolve conflicts, and even accurately read the emotions of people I am negotiating with.
So what is Active Listening? Here is what Wikipedia defines it as:

When interacting, people often are not listening attentively to one another. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next, (the latter case is particularly true in conflict situations or disagreements).
Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference and suspending judgment are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.

There are quite a few methods available to help people engage in Active Listening. I would like to share mine here.

1) Listen
Stop talking, stop CADing, or whatever you are doing and just listen. Look at the speaker directly in the eye, if that is too hard, try just looking at the space between that person’s eyes. Another good tactic is to close your eyes as if you are in deep thought. I like to put my hands in my pocket and pace.
2) Synthesize
Start taking in information and really listen to what that person is saying. Refrain from making a snap response, and if you find you are getting angry try to quell it. Try now to break down what that person is saying into digestible bits. I find it is helpful to sometimes repeat what was said back to the speaker to better understand what was said. Also do realize that people see a situation or problem through a filter. The trick therefore is to try to see things through their filter.
3) Generate
Once you have analyzed their position, comment or argument, start to generate your own. It does not have to be one, you actually can have many. Even better, if you can create a few well thought out positions derived from different angles or viewpoints. Most importantly is to take a position quickly, so that you can decide how you want to react.
4) Formulate
This is an important part, as it is where you can make or break. Pick the right strategy and quickly weigh in the pros and cons for your choice.
5) Engage
This is where you deliver your response. Make sure you watch your body language, and tone of voice. Keep it positive and always smile if you have too. I know it may sound like we are dissecting an argument here, but it is not always the case, as I’m just opting for a worst case scenario.
6) Relate
If you do it right, it’s now not just about getting your point across, you can relate it well to the person you are having a discussion with. Interestingly if all goes well you could circulate point 5 and 6 over and over again.
The great thing about Active Listening is that is can be used in many situations. Listening to a client give a Design Brief, getting feedback from a target consumer in a market test, sparring with a fellow designer over a design, the possibilities in design is endless. While this list of steps seems long, in reality with practice, you can chew through the process very quickly and efficiently.
If you are interested in a different take on how to go about engaging in Active Listening, do check out this one by Study Guides. Best of luck and I hope this helps you become a better designer!

  • DT

    November 4, 2008 at 10:10 pm Reply

    @AlexT – I always wonder why we take the effort to be better professionals but sometimes the same should be done with out own personal life to!
    @Billy – That is very sad that this designer did not seem to be taking the effort to engage, which was part 5 and 6. Pointless listing and doing or saying nothing. The good news not all designers are like that!

  • Billy

    October 29, 2008 at 1:18 pm Reply

    We once had this designer who was sitting in for one of our project. He always emphasize the importance of listening and claimed to have this set of skills as well. But we often see him walking in and out of the class, making calls etc, not focusing on what we are talking about. In the end makes crappy comments on presentations he missed.
    Well i think there’s a big difference in knowing and doing. Some people claim to know so much but practices none.

  • AlexT

    October 28, 2008 at 8:24 am Reply

    Good article. I have been using this at work for years in cross functional team situations. What is funny is that I learned it in the Pre-marital counseling (the couple of times you ave to meet with the minister before the wedding).
    Surprising how it opens up the speaker’s mind in addition to your own.

  • DT

    October 27, 2008 at 9:46 pm Reply

    Hi All, thanks for the very kind comments, I hope you enjoyed this post!
    @Raph I fully agree with you, but students are young, full of passion and energy! I supposed that is excusable eh?

  • Raph Goldsworthy

    October 27, 2008 at 6:21 am Reply

    Ah now if only they would teach students active listening in design schools then there might be even more great designers out there.

  • Andrei Scarlatescu

    October 26, 2008 at 1:43 am Reply

    Some really good tips here.
    Active listening is really useful, although I’m not able to use it so good yet. It’s quite hard at the beginning, but once you get used with it, it should go fine.

  • sssj

    October 24, 2008 at 3:02 am Reply

    Great post, this sounds like a really good thing. Hmmmmm, now to find someone to practice it with.

  • hyperX

    October 24, 2008 at 12:49 am Reply

    Not only for designers. Anyone can be benefit from active listening. Thanks for the info man!

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