Listen To Your Listening

TAoN No. 82: Better listening with Ximena Vengoechea. Plus a new icebreaker, and more.

Hello and welcome. New readers: You have joined at an unusual time, as the newsletter has been somewhat disrupted by Ida. (More here, and in the programming notes below.) I’m getting back on track but this issue may still have some rough edges.

Listen,” by Simon Law on Flickr, some rights reserved

TAoN addresses the upsides of careful listening all the time. Often that’s in the context of listening to the world — the sounds of your neighborhood, your office, a place you’re visiting for the first time, and so on.

But obviously, truly listening to other people is really important, too. (After all, what’s the point of asking icebreaker questions if you don’t really attend to the answer?)

So I was excited to read Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection, the recent book from writer, illustrator, and user-research expert Ximena Vengoechea. Vengoechea honed her listening skills as a researcher helping the likes of LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter understand how customers actually use their products. But the book channels her listening-lessons-learned into a form that can help improve any kind of listening relationship. You can read an excerpt here.

I asked Vengoechea if she could offer some preliminary listening-improvement tips to TAoN readers. She replied:

Listening is an active process, but we often don't think of it that way — we usually just ‘show up’ and let our ears do the rest. But when you slow down and start to pay attention to your listening, you learn a lot about yourself, and your conversation partner.”

As a first step in that direction, she suggested two things to tune into, “to deepen your listening.” In her words:

  • Your body — What is your body telling you as you listen? Are you breathing deeply or is your breath shallow? Is that a knot in your stomach or a tightening in your chest? Sometimes we don't realize we are having an emotional response to something that's being said until we burst with emotion — but tuning into our body can be a helpful clue that something's up.

  • Your default listening mode — Each of us has a habitual way of listening, a particular filter we hear the world through that's informed by our personality and early relationships. This default listening mode biases us to respond in conversation in a given way. Are you a natural problem-solver, always scanning for the problem (and solution) in a conversation? Do you tend to be an identifier, prone to offering your version of a situation unprompted (Me too! That's just like my experience with...). Maybe you are more the defuser, ready to crack a joke and lighten the mood whenever things get heavy.

    No mode is better than the rest, but it's useful to know your own mode so that you can adapt it as needed, since sometimes our instinct about how to listen is wrong.

There’s a quiz in Listen Like You Mean It that helps readers identify their own primary listening mode.

I really like the way both of these suggestions prod us to foreground the act of listening. It reminds me of friend of TAoN Shanna Trenholm’s recent thoughts about “leading with curiosity” as a listener — and it strikes me as a useful starting point to consider listening on both a physical and analytical level.

Check out the book here. Vengoechea also has a newsletter that will likely be of interest to many TAoN readers, Letters from Ximena,

Thanks Ximena!!

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  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.

This week’s icebreaker is from Betsy, a librarian from a small school in far west Texas.

What is a food you’ve tried lately that you really liked?

Betsy explains that she floated this question to a cashier at her regular grocery store. “He’s been my quiet, MYOB cashier several times,” she says. “But now that we shared a moment about the acquired taste of seaweed chips I hope we’ll have more of a rapport.”

As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. In fact this one, which is from about two years ago (!!), is I think the oldest one in my inventory; I’m really trying to get more systematic about this!

But as always, I want more:

Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to

Programming Notes

  • Thanks for all the kind reactions to last week’s post; power is getting restored in New Orleans and I’ll be back in the home office soon, and back to a regular schedule.

  • Pretty sure.

  • I hope.

  • Anyway, Thursday’s post will be the finale of the Summer School series. That’s for paid subscribers only, so if you haven’t signed on, consider doing so!

In Other News

Okay that’s it!

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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