My name is Susan Eliot, owner and principal of Eliot & Associates, a qualitative research firm in Portland Oregon. I design and implement applied qualitative research projects for public and nonprofit organizations on the west coast.
Since every interview or focus group I conduct demands scrupulous listening, I have a keen interest in honing my listening skills. The problem is that listening–listening genuinely—doesn’t come naturally for most of us. Although the quality of the information we collect depends so heavily on it, no one teaches us how to listen. High quality listening can make a real difference, though. I know when I’m really listening I’m more likely to hear what the interviewee is intending, make meaning from their words, assess the relevance of their response, and–most importantly–elicit pertinent, useful information.
Psychologists suggest a strategy called “active listening.” In active listening we set aside our own agendas, responses, and next questions to make space for the other. When we do speak, our only task is to clarify and understand. We paraphrase, ask for more or deeper explanation, reiterate small details (this shows we’re paying attention), or relate remarks back to an earlier comment.
This is a good start but listening is a two-way street. Researchers have found that, for listening to be effective (for the other person to tell us what they really think), the one being listened to must have the experience of being heard. Not only do we need to listen “actively,” the other must know unequivocally that we’re listening and are interested in what they are saying. This isn’t easy to fake and I’ve found you should never try to. The trick is to listen genuinely.
- Use your own words to paraphrase. Parroting back the respondent’s words verbatim can be annoying and doesn’t assure accurate understanding.
- Go beyond paraphrasing. Reflect back the meaning or emotions you hear (or think you hear) underlying the response. You may have to stick your neck a little but it’s worth it if it helps elucidate their response.
- If you are confused, say so. If you realize you don’t understand something let the respondent know as soon as you can. Most people will graciously clarify their response and it gives them a chance to be the expert.
- Be empathic and nonjudgmental. You can collect valuable information by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes especially when you don’t agree with the other person’s point of view.
- Know when to stop; don’t pretend. Once you accurately understand what the respondent is saying don’t patronize with unnecessary paraphrasing. It can come across as inauthentic.