User researcher Ximena Vengoechea provides detailed, emotionally aware guidance for anyone seeking more connected, fruitful and productive conversations.
Ximena Vengoechea, a user researcher for Silicon Valley’s top firms, cites the importance of “empathetic listening.” She offers a toolkit of practical advice, personal insights and helpful exercises to enable you to build rapport, connect more deeply and avoid interaction pitfalls in conversation.
Empathy, Humility and Curiosity
According to Vengoechea, you can avoid conversational misunderstandings by changing how you listen.
Surface listening can…include behaviors like multitasking, interrupting others, mentally checking out or continually bringing a conversation back to what we want to talk about.Ximena Vengoechea
To establish true connection, practice empathetic listening, advises Vengoechea. Take in everything someone says – or doesn’t say. Approach every conversation with empathy, humility and curiosity. Empathy entails trying to understand how another person is feeling and why. Humility means treating other people as though they were experts, allowing them to express thoughts and opinions without worrying about saying the wrong thing. Embracing curiosity means being open to learning about another person, topic or idea.
Self-awareness, trust and patience help you stay present and mindful as you truly listen, asserts Vengoechea. Self-awareness helps you to recognize when outside thoughts distract you, or emotions derail you. By labeling what is happening inside your head, you can regain control, clarity and the ability to refocus your attention on the other person.
To listen intently, you need to trust that you will remember the essentials from the conversation. Try to recall the marrow of the conversation rather than attempting to remember every word verbatim. If necessary, scribble down some notes after the discussion to boost your recall.
In conversation, have patience. Don’t cut others off or chime in with your opinions at every opening. Don’t speak as soon as an idea pops into your head. Encourage all participants, even the quiet ones, to share their thoughts.
Vengoechea extends some useful tips to help you decipher others’ cues, particularly body language, word choice and voice. In terms of body language, an avoidance of eye contact signals insecurity or an absence of trust. Watch the neck and hands to see if a person is relaxed or tense. Fidgeting can signal nervousness or awkwardness.
If someone uses displacement phrases, such as “you always” or “you never,” he or she indicates an underlying emotional issue. Any delayed response to your question signifies a reluctance to answer.
Be conscious of the pace, volume and pitch of your conversation partner’s voice. A loud voice can indicate frustration, confidence or anger. Speaking quickly can signify nervousness. Someone might speak in a higher pitch to someone in authority or in a lower pitch to seem authoritative.
Your background, experience and personality influence your choice of listening mode. For example, in “explainer” mode, you seek reasons why your conversation partner feels a certain way. A “defuser” alleviates an uncomfortable situation with humor. A “problem solver” tries to find solutions to other people’s problems; an “identifier” recognizes the other person’s situation and talks about his or her own similar experiences. A “nurse” puts the other person’s needs above his or her own. A “validator” agrees with his or her conversation partner, sometimes inflating the other person’s ego. Awareness of your and your conversation partner’s default listening modes helps you to respond appropriately.
The best way to show our conversation partners that we understand them is to meet them where they are. Ximena Vengoechea
Use your “informed intuition” to discern which listening mode is most appropriate, advises Vengoechea.
The Right Questions
Asking the right questions can lead to more meaningful conversations. Vengoechea suggests using connecting questions or statements to encourage more than one-syllable answers. For example, “exploratory questions,” usually start with “how” or “what.” They invite the other person to take the lead. Free from assumptions and biases, exploratory questions can open up unexpected avenues. “Encouraging phrases” – such as “tell me more” or “what else?” – invite the other person to elaborate. “Reflection questions” – presenting either-or scenarios to gain clarity about a topic – can elicit useful insights. Presenting a choice between two options allows your partner to clarify what they don’t want. Avoid disconnecting questions such as “Are you upset?” or “Do you think that’s a problem?” Such queries are close-ended, self-serving and tend to reflect your own view of a situation.
Redirecting a conversation involves moving it toward or away from particular topics. In group conversations, redirect to ensure everyone gets to speak. Introducing new topics, hitting the pause button or taking someone physically out of a conversation can avoid awkward or potentially harmful situations. You may redirect a conversation to protect yourself. Do this diplomatically by moving to a different topic, or directly by saying you’re not willing to discuss a certain matter, suggests Vengoechea.
The relationship between you and your conversation partner can impede your connection. For example, in a hierarchical manager-staff member relationship, staff members are less likely to speak freely.
Talking about taboo topics requires a certain degree of courage and willingness to put our fears aside. Ximena Vengoechea
To tackle a difficult topic, tell your conversation partner what you want to talk about and hope to achieve in advance. Aim to understand his or her point of view. Have an exit strategy, especially if a conversation is likely to upset you or your partner.
Give yourself time to process and recover after conversations. You’re not responsible for the other person’s emotions. Prioritize your own well-being.
By foregrounding mindfulness, patience and empathy, Vengoechea presents compassion and generosity as the most important skills for forging meaningful, productive conversations. Vengoechea occasionally lapses into corporate consultant-speak, but even then, her expertise and good-heartedness shine through.
Other books on building relationships through conversational skills include Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Emily Gregory.