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4 Exercises That Prove Listening Matters

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Feb 21 2020

Listening spurs personal transformation. You might’ve guessed that’s true for the listener—hearing new ideas can create sparks of inspiration or revelations about one’s own beliefs. But being listened to can also be transformative. Research has found being heard can shape a speaker’s emotions, help them grapple with complexity, and even temper extreme perspectives.

Listening effectively requires unlearning how we typically have a conversation. We have to reorient why we converse in the first place—away from the urge to validate ourselves and toward our curiosity about the other person. Krista Tippett, an entrepreneur who studies wisdom and compassion, calls this practice “generous listening.” To practice generous listening with others, Tippett says, is to release your assumptions about them, embrace ambiguity, and be willing to be surprised.

Sound radical? In this day and age, starting any dialogue assumption-free might feel like a challenge, but as designers, we often practice generous listening. Our process is powered by finding inspiration in people’s lived experience. In order to create something new, we have to be listening closely and openly enough to hear the unexpected.

We often see how transformative listening is for the people involved in our design research process. At the start of a project, we sit with people for hours, listening as they share their stories. It’s humbling when, on their doorstep later, they thank us. We know we’re grateful for the wealth of knowledge and ideas they have given us, but our presence as listeners must have been a gift too.

Whether it’s to aid one another’s understanding of ourselves or generate new ideas, these are my favorite exercises to practice, as Tippett calls it, generous listening.

1. "What's holding your attention?"

We all carry the baggage of our messy, human lives to our jobs. Starting your team’s day by answering this check-in question can help alleviate the tension people carry into the workplace, whether it’s lingering anxiety about an argument with a spouse or worry over a child’s first day at school.

Give everyone a minute to reflect on the question. Ask each person to share for two minutes. When someone else is sharing, listen, and if it feels appropriate, think of a follow-up question to ask them later.

Listening is not about silently waiting your turn to speak, but about asking more curious questions. Once each person is done, thank them for sharing.

2. Creative Tensions

In this exercise, people reveal how they feel about a nuanced issue by where they stand in the room. You can create tension to probe everything from company culture to the value of social connection.

To begin, pose a tension—an open-ended statement with two opposing responses—to the group. A good tension has a spectrum of answers between the two poles. For example: Working on a deadline makes me feel: Energized ↔ stressed. When preparing tensions, ask yourself: Is this a balanced tension? Am I being generous to each side? Writing tensions, just like asking insightful questions, is a skill. Revise yours until it feels balanced.

Now comes the physical part. Ask everyone to distribute themselves from one end of a room to the other based on where they stand on the tension. In this example, those on the far left feel energized by deadlines; those on the far right feel intense stress. Folks in the middle are or a mix of the two.

Once people have arranged themselves, invite those on the far ends to share why they stood there. Invite others to move if something someone else says changes their point of view. Repeat this process for people standing in the middle—why are they toeing the line?

Creative Tensions is a tool developed by IDEO and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program. You can learn more about running Creative Tensions here.

3. Hopes and fears

This activity is an opportunity for a team to share the hopes and fears that underlie certain behaviors, but often go unsaid. It’s a useful exercise for alleviating anxiety and rallying a team around common goals.

In a small group, have everyone write 1 to 3 hopes and 1 to 3 fears about the start of a project, a new initiative, or another discrete topic. A volunteer shares a fear first. People with similar responses share next to surface common themes. Repeat this style of sharing for people’s hopes (to end on an optimistic note).

4. “Tell me more about that.”

This is every curious person’s favorite conversation starter. Did someone just get wide-eyed and describe their weekend as “odd?" Or sigh describing their first job as a server as “wild?"

“Tell me more about that” is an open-ended, fail-proof phrase that gives people permission to talk about what they’re holding behind an unusual word or cryptic statement. It’s a powerful gesture that signals you are ready to follow wherever someone’s inner monologue is taking them.

The fruit of these exercises hinges on your commitment to listen differently. For The Civil Conversations Project, an organization Tippett founded to create compassionate civic discourse, becoming a generous listener is part of the individual “human change that makes meaningful social change possible.” The project begs the question: If listening is at the root of collective progress, what then is the cost of not hearing each other?

“What’s holding your attention?” is an exercise created by Alexis Gonzalez Black. Special thanks to Tracee Worley, Simo Stolzoff, and Jayme Brown for their contributions.

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