Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. (Larry King)

Having worked on staff (at very large corporations) for most of my career, I have had to complete my fair share of performance appraisals.  One of the things you typically get measured on is communications skills.  And a big part of that is simply the ability to listen.  As a usability engineer, I’ve never had any hesitation in giving myself a 5 out of 5.  In fact, if you’re a usability engineer and you can’t do the same, you really might want to dust off the old resume and start thinking about a different career.

So, what makes somebody a good listener?  I actually think a lot of it is innate.  If you just naturally have empathy for your fellow human being, you’re half the way there.  

At the same time, though, it is possible to be too empathetic.  When a user struggles, if your first reaction is to jump in and fix their problem, you may be helping them, but you often do so at the expense of other users.  The way I look at it is, I can fix this person’s problem, but by so doing I may not get the data I need.  And it’s that data, in turn, that will help me fix the problem for this person and for a whole lot of other people.

It ain’t easy, though – let me tell ya.  It just goes against the grain of the average empathetic person.  And that’s why I recommend a lot of practice.  In fact, if you’re a new usability engineer, there’s no substitute for having someone more experienced watch and critique you.  It doesn’t happen a lot and it’s not an easy thing to do, but it can be very valuable.

Another thing that can help in this situation is innate also, and that’s simply being an introvert.  For the average person, it’s not easy sitting behind somebody, taking notes, and saying nothing more than, “What are you thinking?”  We mousy people have a much easier time doing that.

All in all, it’s a very odd combination of empathy and distance.  But it is something that good therapists, talk show hosts, and usability engineers do as second nature.  And when it comes down to it, it’s really just sitting back and letting the other person do the talking for a change.

Larry King, ancient talk show host, serial husband, and great listener

(Yes, that is his wife.  No, I’m not kidding.  Yes, it’s his seventh.  Yup, she is 33 younger than him.  And, yes, she is a Mormon.)

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