The user knows best

Bryan McClain · October 29, 2009 · Short URL:

How to listen to the user and hear the experience

 When someone is speaking, do you think about what the other person is saying, or do you think about what you are going to say next?

At Metric Lab, we are big believers in communication and what it can do to improve research. Our background in both human factors research and communication has allowed us to harness the experiences of our users and provide the most accurate feedback to our clients. Our background in communication includes many years of research and training with hostage negotiators across the country. Through this training we learned the skills and techniques that negotiators use to resolve crisis situations and how to apply them in a research setting. We consider Active Listening to be one of the key components of an overarching method that we call Active Observation®. Active Observation® is a synthesis of Active Listening skills, influencing techniques and advanced observation of non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language to generate a deep and dynamic understanding of an individual.

This article will include contents similar to the training curriculum performed by hostage negotiators. We'll provide you with a very brief overview of Active Listening as well as discuss some of its numerous applications. We'll detail each of the Active Listening techniques and how and when to use them. Finally, we'll discuss the importance of training in order to make these advanced communication techniques work in the context of research.

Active Listening - Overview and Concept

Active Listening consists of a set of communication techniques that were originally developed by psychotherapists as a way of getting their clients to feel safe and open up. This involved establishing rapport and trust by demonstrating care and a genuine desire to listen. Since its original development for psychotherapy, Active Listening has also been used for a wide variety of professions that rely on interpersonal communication. These professions include educators, law enforcement (particularly hostage negotiators), customer service, salespeople, and business professionals.

Active listening focuses on what a person is communicating to you. It includes techniques to ensure that you understand what you are being told, encourage further disclosure, and demonstrate that you are listening closely. When people communicate with one another, they not only communicate content but also emotions. It is the emotions behind the content that tell us the most about a person's message. This can be extremely valuable in research by allowing the researcher to tap into the emotional component of a user's experience with a product.

One way to grasp a better understanding of active listening is to understand the difference between active listening and passive listening. Passive listening is how most people learn to listen to one another and can result in missing a lot of content compared to Active Listening. It simply consists of sitting back and letting a person talk without taking any action at all. Think of it like listening to a keynote talk at a conference. It does not include interacting with the speaker or engaging in any way. It is a one-way form of communication. Anyone with experience speaking in front of a subdued crowd understands how uncomfortable it can be without any kind of engagement or feedback. This is how a research participant feels when you don't engage him or her with thoughtful questions or other Active Listening skills.

By contrast, Active Listening is, by definition, active. It includes engaging the speaker, asking questions, paraphrasing, emotional discovery and a variety of other actions taken by the listener in order to get more information from the speaker and build a relationship. As an active listener, your job is to engage in communication that will shape the behavior of the speaker to continue to disclose. An observer might describe it as a discussion in which two people are mutually interacting; however, when you are listening actively, the information will tend to flow in one direction, from the user to you. The information that flows to you will be the user experience. When appropriate, we'll provide examples of an active listening exchange between a participant and a researcher to show how each technique should be used.

Active Listening - Specific Techniques

The specific techniques listed below are the communication actions that compose Active Listening. For each technique, the article will provide a description of the technique, why the technique is important, and how the technique can be most effectively used.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is looking the other person in the eye when he or she is speaking.  It indicates that you are paying attention and listening to the person. The most effective way to use eye contact is to look at a person but do not stare. Occasionally make eye breaks, preferably looking down rather than away.  Looking down gives the impression that you are thinking about what the person said. Looking away gives the impression that you are paying attention to something else.

Attentive Body Language

Attentive body language includes gestures and postures that indicate that you are interested in what you are hearing. This will make the person feel like you are listening to what they are saying and that you find them interesting. You can use Attentive body language by making gestures of understanding like nodding as well as postures that indicate interest such as slightly leaning forward or tilting your head.

Vocal Style

Vocal style is how a person uses speech rate, volume, and tone to indicate interest. Vocal style indicates interest and attention and communicates to the other person your interest in what he or she is saying.  Make the most of vocal style by making variations to speech rate, volume and tone to emphasize areas that are important or interesting in the conversation. An example would be speaking slower when asking about a topic that is very important.

Verbal Following

Verbal Following is responding to what the other person is talking about rather than abruptly changing the topic; it comes into play when you need to transition between topics for one reason or another. Verbal following shows that you are interested in what is being discussed even though you are changing the topic. In order to use verbal following always make a comment about what the other person was saying before you change the topic. This techniques requires good judgment because some of the most valuable data can be gathered when you allow the participant to control the discussion.

Participant: It would be great if this device could sync with my PC also.

Researcher (Verbal Following): That's a great idea. I'll make sure to pass that on to the designers. Now if you saw this device in the stores, what would you expect the price to be?


Paraphrasing is when a person summarizes what the other person said.  Paraphrasing demonstrates that you are listening, builds rapport and creates empathy by showing that you understand what the other person said. It can also ensure that information gathered is accurate. The most effective way to use paraphrasing is to listen to the other person and then summarize what the person said and ask them if what you heard was correct. Examples might be "Are you telling me...?", or "So what you are saying is...?"

Participant: I'm not really sure, if it's like it is now, probably about $50, but if it could sync with my PC, I'd be willing to pay $75, maybe a bit more.

Researcher (Paraphrasing): So the ability to sync with your PC will dramatically increase the value?


Reflecting is when a person repeats back the last word of a phrase. Reflecting demonstrates that you are listening and paying attention. It is a simple way of gathering more information without asking for it. The most effective way to use reflecting is to repeat back the last word of a phrase then let the person elaborate on it.

Participant: Actually, I was really confused by this button.

Researcher (Reflecting): This button?

Participant: Yeah, it took me a while to figure out that it was a button. I thought it was just a label.


Silence is when you strategically don't say anything.  Many people use silence when they are about to say something important or just said something important.  Many people feel uncomfortable when there is silence in a conversation and if you wait, the other person may say something that he or she would otherwise not disclose.  Just be careful not to overuse silence because it will make the person feel uncomfortable.  Also make sure you wait to use it until after you've already established some rapport with the person.

Minimal Encouragers

Minimal encouragers are words or sounds that are used to express interest. Minimal encouragers are important because it encourages the person to continue speaking and shows that you are interested and paying attention. When minimal encouragers are used properly, the person will not feel interrupted while he or she is speaking. Use minimal encouragers by making responses like, "oh," "yeah," or "uh-huh" during the natural pauses in the person's speech.  These pauses tend to happen at the end of sentences.

Participant: I can totally see myself using this all the time, especially when I'm traveling.

Researcher (Minimal Encourager):  Yeah?

Participant: Yeah, when you're sitting in an airport for a while you have to keep yourself busy.

Researcher (Minimal Encourager):  Uh huh

Participant: And the fact that you can switch between functions so quickly really makes me want to keep using it.

Emotional Discovery

Emotional discovery is an effective way to talk to a person about his or her emotional experience. Emotional discovery is important because it shows that you are listening, care and understand what he or she is feeling. Use emotional discovery to respond to the emotions heard in a person's voice, rather than the content. Tell the person how he or she seems or sounds, rather than how he or she is feeling. An example might be a statement like "you seem to be uncomfortable," rather than "I know you're uncomfortable."

Researcher (Emotional Discovery):  You seem a little frustrated.

Participant: I just can't figure out how to do this, honestly, if I was at home I would have given up already.


Empathy is indicating that you understand or identify with the emotions of the other person. Empathy shows the person that you care and that you understand what they're feeling.  Empathy is one of the most effective tools for building rapport. The most effective way to use empathy is to make statements that indicate that you have experienced the emotion or statements that recognize the difficulty of the situation.  Avoid making statements that show pity such as "I feel sorry for you"

Researcher (Empathy):  We all know what it's like trying to work with an interface that isn't quite right.

Participant: I just feel like if you changed these couple things over here, then it would be almost perfect.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a "yes" or "no." These kinds of questions encourage the person to elaborate on their answers. Open-ended questions are useful in gathering large amounts of information from the person with only a single question.  It will also allow the person to express him or herself more completely and provide you with a greater understanding of the person. Use open-ended questions by asking questions that begin with "what," "why," or "could."  Examples may include "What did you do?"  "Why did you do that?" or "Could you tell me more about that?"

Researcher (Open-Ended Question):  How can you see yourself using this device?

Participant: Well, I'd definitely use it while I'm traveling, it's great that it can keep me entertained and yet have so many other practical functions. I'd probably use it during my commute every day, although that would be a lot easier if it had some kind of docking station   in my car. I'd probably even use it when I'm at home.

Close-Ended Questions

Close-ended questions are questions that can only be answered with a "yes" or a "no" response. Close-ended questions will generate concrete responses or force the person to acknowledge facts that they have avoided or unclearly addressed. Use close-ended questions to get a person to summarize or bottom-line and elaborate response, but be careful not to overuse them as they can make a person feel constrained and frustrated.

Researcher (Close-Ended Question):  So you can see yourself using this regularly?

Participant: yes.


After reading this article, you should have a pretty good understanding of Active Listening and how it works. As of right now, you know the techniques that compose Active Listening, but there is still another step to take in order to be able to use them effectively. Active Listening techniques should occur naturally, not as conscious actions that result from drawing from a knowledge base. You shouldn't have to think about what you are going to say next. This requires taking knowledge of these techniques and transforming them into skills. The way to do this is through proper and effective training. Much like the training that hostage negotiators undertake. I encourage anyone that everyone that is interested in maximizing their communication effectiveness to seek out hands-on training supervised by a qualified instructor. Feel free to contact myself, Demetrius Madrigal, or Bryan McClain at Metric Lab for recommendations on training resources.

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