Art of listening

Art of listening
Image by Charles Deluvio

I was invited to one of the critical meetings with stakeholders to define where our design concept will be headed. We have already received tons of information from the company, conducted solid research, and created a  promising design concept. "Piece of cake, I will show them this concept, and they will buy" is all that I can think of at that moment. With that in mind, I daydreamed while other people were speaking and patiently waited for my turn. When I finally got a chance to speak, I took a deep breath, opened my keynotes, and started my pitch. I described the research we did, demonstrated the concept we've created, and discussed how this design would lead to business success. I  collected a lot of nods from all my team peers and stakeholders. When I finished, I was sure that I could add another win to my collection.

The VP of the company we created the concept for, and the key stakeholder, smiled and said, "Thank you. That's an interesting idea, but we will pass on it. Do you have something else to share?" The moment I heard those words, it felt like a cold shower. I stood still for a couple of seconds, and then instead of asking "Why," I started to… defend my concept.

In the following 10 minutes, both my team and stakeholders were quite shocked to see me arguing with the VP. I've provided a lot of solid arguments that were supposed to prove my point of view, but none of them worked for the VP. No need to say that the battle was lost. We decided to meet again in a week to discuss the concept. Meanwhile, the VP told us that he is perfectly willing to provide additional feedback if needed.

Backstory

It was my third large project in product design. At that time, I was pretty new to product design but had two large projects in my portfolio that were completed exceptionally well. As a result, I was very confident in my designer and communication skills. I thought I could deal with any type of project and stakeholders, no matter how complicated they were. "After all, I'm a product designer; I know what is good for users and business." That's what I thought at that moment.

One more try

The next day I went back to the drawing board with my team. We started to discuss the concept that we presented yesterday. It still looked good to us. We spent a few hours discussing the user journey and creating new storyboards. Yet, we weren't able to find the reason why this concept was rejected.

Later that day, I sent an email to the VP, and we scheduled our call for the next day. At that moment, I still thought that I was in the HiPPO (highest paid person's opinion) trap. I thought that the VP used all his power to dictate how we should do things.

Establishing communication with the VP

At the appointed time, I called the VP to discuss the concept. After a cold opening, we moved directly to discuss the design we presented early that week. This time I decided to follow a different strategy—I asked the VP to explain why he thinks the concept isn't good and started listening. At that moment, I still felt that the VP was wrong, so I thought if I could listen carefully, I would find weak points in his arguments and persuade him.

But then the magical thing happened. The more I listened to the VP, the more I started to see the project from his perspective. At the end of his part, I perfectly understood most of the points that he shared with me. Long story short, the VP rejected the concept due to the specifics of their business model. It was hard for the product team to understand this without knowing the company's context. This discussion seemed like filling gaps in the puzzle.

Moving forward

I feel lucky to have that call with the VP for many reasons. It helps me to build a bond with him and create shared ground from which we could move forward. After a few rounds of conversation with the VP, we've reached an agreement on what we want to build. We've completed the project on time, and today the products we've created are used by millions of people.  

But what I think is even more important is that this project changed my perception of communication. Most people believe that to become a good communicator they have to focus on becoming great speakers. But listening can be more important than speaking. Listening is all about understanding the rationale behind decisions, what the speaker is trying to accomplish. Sadly, all too often, we listen to the words being said without truly grasping the meaning behind them.

A few important lessons that I learned from this experience:

  • Be open-minded. I know it sounds like a cliche, but open-mindedness will help you avoid preconceived biases against people and their opinions. Try not to judge people; try to understand why their view is different from your view.
  • Don't try to be the smartest person in the room. Your goal is to solve the problem, not honor your ego.
  • Practice attentive listening. Listening isn't a passive process that requires no effort. It's hard work because you need to understand what the other person is talking about and why. What is the context of the problem? What are the motives of the speaker?
  • Don't respond with anger. It can be hard to follow this advice when the other person is yelling at you. Yet, most of the time, people demonstrate aggressive behavior when they've already tried all possible approaches, and none of them worked, and they're desperate to have help.
  • Learn to ask questions. Good questions will help both you and the speaker find a solution to the problem.

Talk less, listen more