Have you thought about how much we, as human beings, converse with one another? Whether we type a message on Skype, call a faraway family member over WhatsApp, or greet a friend in person, conversations take place on a minute-to-minute basis. Usually the word conversation evokes thoughts of talking, speaking, and generally sending. Listening is more often in the shadows, but the best conversationalists are the best listeners.
As a moderator at iModerate, I have conversations with all sorts of people every day in a market research setting. My goal is to tease out people’s underlying thoughts and behavioral drivers. This makes active listening invaluable in guiding the most insightful conversations and uncovering people’s most profound, elusive feelings and perspectives. Whether or not you’re in qualitative market research, listening is a fundamental skill, and it’s possible for everyone to become better listeners.
Below are five aspects of listening that everyone can work to improve.
This is the first step of the listening process. Avoid distractions, like having the TV on or thinking about what you might eat for dinner. Make sure you’re not only hearing your interlocutor, but that you’re devoting attention and focusing on their words and any other conversational clues. This may be tone of voice over the phone, gestures and facial expressions in a face-to-face setting, or even punctuation in a messaging setting.
Understanding takes place as you receive information from the speaker. It’s an ongoing process, and your understanding deepens as new information or nuanced perspectives are revealed. A fundamental component to understanding through listening is empathy. Without care or effort to place yourself in the mindset of your conversational partners, you cannot truly listen to them. Empathy helps not only in gaining an understanding of content, but gaining an understanding of the context of that content within the speaker’s frame of reference. Without empathy, it’s easy to quickly pick out the gist of what a person’s saying and spend the rest of the time thinking about your response, losing out on valuable points and perspectives.
In order to understand and partake in a meaningful interaction with another person, you have to remember what the conversation is about. You can try to pick out central themes in the conversation and build in supporting and intricate details as they come. Be sure not to spend too much effort building this story though, as conversations are malleable and require a certain amount of freedom to move in different directions.
This stage of the process is the most mentally demanding. You have to go beyond linking thoughts and creating a storyline to performing a real-time critique of your understanding of what the person is saying. What is the speaker’s intent with their words? What is fact, what is opinion? Any exaggerations? What does all of this mean? When you evaluate a person’s words you try to catch a humble glimpse into their own schema and worldview.
Through a combination of receiving, understanding, remembering, and evaluating, you can form responses and continue this process as the speaker yourself. If there are any points of confusion, or if there’s a vague statement for which you want a deeper understanding, or if you have a question about the reasoning behind the speaker’s words, this is the time to ask.
As a qualitative researcher, these aspects of listening are the basic building blocks of my job. It’s not a clear-cut, chronological process, but a fluid way of thinking and viewing interactions. Each new word and sentence a respondent offers gives me another potential path to explore. Actively listening yields the flexibility to quickly take the conversation in different directions and the agility necessary to dig deeper and bring to light novel, enticing, human data.
Mithaug, D. (n.d.). Listening Skills 101 [e-learning class media]. Retrieved March/April, 2016, from https://library.universalclass.com/i/librarycourse/listening-skills-101.htm