Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

The Fine Art of Listening

How to level up your research game

  1. 1,568 words
  2. 7 minute read

Research, for me, is the single most important aspect of the design process.

It informs every step. From foundational strategy—to rationalising something that could be seen as arbitrary like colour choice—having the right research in place right at the beginning of a project means always having something in your corner to back up your thinking later on. Because all thinking should always be based on solid research in the first place.

This might seem like a relatively straight forward notion, but for many designers out there it’s a revelation that actually, knowledge of Adobe CS or the latest trends regarding buttons in design systems pales into insignificance when you don’t know why or what it is you’re doing it all for anyway.

The act of research is essentially an investigation for knowledge. To learn more about whatever it is you’re working on. There are good methods, outdated methods, and bad methods. But one method that will never go out of style is just…listening. Honestly, it’s as simple as that. People love talking about themselves, their point of view and opinions. So indulge them.

Just listen to what people are saying. Listen to the ambiance of the surroundings. Absorb it, take it all in. That’s where ideas live.

Dale Carnegie knew how important the trait of listening is, a long time ago. “To be interesting, be interested.” is a stand out quote for me from How to Win Friends and Influence People. That doesn’t just mean asking the right questions, but really listening to the answers. In those answers lie the solutions to the problems at hand. Pay attention. Do this one thing right, and it’ll make all the difference. People really do teach you things in their words.

The bare bones of why this is so important, is that listening to what people have to say builds trust between parties, and with real trust comes genuine insight. Think about therapists — you go, they listen, relationships are built and you then divulge everything. The same should go for a creative<>client relationship. Stakeholders should feel comfortable with passing on the story you need them to tell, but they won’t do that if you don’t pay attention to what is often something very purposeful, personal, and meaningful to them.

Shut up

But it’s not just about listening. Mark H. McCormack states in What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School “I believe you can learn almost everything you need to know — and more than other people would like you to know — simply by watching and listening, keeping your eyes peeled, your ears open. And your mouth closed.”

That last point is the real stickler for me here. So many people love the sound of their own voice, that even when they are ‘listening’, you can tell that what they’re really doing is thinking of what their next response will be rather than absorbing the information you’re giving to them. They only listen to themselves out loud – or even worse – in their own heads. These people can be dangerous, as they often act as huge blockers in every part of the process in a project, merely out of pure ignorance or being so wrapped up in them, that they’ve missed so much of what is actually going on.

Don’t interrupt

Those who know me know that those who interrupt are right at the top of my shitlist. Not only do they not take in what may be valuable information that could be answering the very thing they’re interrupting with in the first place, it’s also pretty disrespectful. Let people get through what they’re saying.

“As long as you’re talking, you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.”

You know who said this? Sylvester Stallone as pensioner Rocky in Creed. Maybe he got it from this beautiful motivational poster, or maybe it originated from somewhere else. Who knows. But there’s no arguing with the sentiment.

You’re there to learn

The art of listening goes beyond taking in what people have to say. It’s about picking out the valuable bits and using them to inform your thinking. That’s the key take away from this topic. The good news is that if you listen intently then it shouldn’t be too hard to decipher the necessary information from the unnecessary, but it does take time. I’ve worked with people who are amazing at it—they hear something that may have passed others or myself by, and that nugget of information turns out to be the linchpin for the whole project.

Get used to silence

So much of our day to day is continuously amplified by noise. Some are so uncomfortable without the constant hum of sound in their lives, that it’s almost a prerequisite to cure boredom to have music or TV on in the background at all times (I am occasionally one of those people!).

Silence is a virtue, though. And by getting used to silence in our lives, we give our minds the time and space to process. To be calm, and at peace. And in these moments, we often hear what’s around us with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. Getting comfortable with silence helps to focus at the times when people are talking.

Suddenly, when everything in life isn’t white noise, the contrast when somebody is vocal goes on to peak our interest more intensely.

Make notes

We all have questions, thoughts and opinions to answers as people are speaking. This is totally normal and acceptable. At the heart of a good research-based conversation, though, is allowing the one answering to finish their train of thought. Often that question that pops into your mind midway through a response is covered by the end.

But as you go, feel free to make those notes. Jot down that response question to that point they made in between your scribbles of knowledge and insights the interviewee is coming out with. If it then remains unanswered before the end of the response, just go back to it. This also shows the person you are really listening, engaged and interested, and your all important rapport will continue to develop.

Day to day

As I’ve said before with writing, there are plenty of opportunities on a daily basis where you can practice listening. Whether it be with friends and family, your partner or colleagues – chances are at some point somebody will simply talk to you about anything and everything that’s going on.

Take these chances to really focus on their words. As a daily exercise, make a conscious effort to ask at least three questions based off of something any of these parties say. It doesn’t have to be through a professional lens. It could be about what your colleague did over the weekend, about current affairs or that TV show you haven’t got round to yet.

Music & podcasts

I often listen to music while I work, usually of the hip hop persuasion, which is obviously quite common. It sometimes works as that background drone to help move work along to a beat, which helps when I need to get shit done.

However it’s especially useful as a genre when I want to practice a bit of intense listening. It’s generally quite fast and full of slang, metaphors and idioms – in honesty can be a challenge to understand completely. Another exercise I do is really concentrate on the lyrics, and make notes of specific rhymes which stand out. I might Genius them afterwards, or just put them in an ongoing Notes file for a future Instagram post captions or motivational inspiration (or whatever).

This also works well with Podcasts. As they tend to be a lot slower and usually more conversation based, making notes on questions you would have if you had the chance to actually ask them helps to tune that listening ear.

Body language

Now I’m no expert here. However, probably like you, I can all tell when somebody isn’t really listening to what I’m saying by how they’re acting physically. A general disinterest in what people have to say is communicated very clearly by the way one sits, looks and acts. Most people will pick up on any negative body language settings subconsciously, and in doing so will automatically not feel like they should waste too much more of their precious time on you.

So, sit up. Be attentive. Smile. Make eye contact. Be clear that you give a shit and that they are important to you in this moment. It’ll do wonders for the conversation and before long, it won’t even feel forced. You’ll have positive body language naturally.

The point of listening, and listening well, is to find the answers and insights to the questions you have in relation to a brief or problem. Asking the right questions is key. As is having rapport with the people in the conversation. And you should be able to obtain these things, and more, if you take the right steps towards really listening.

All I try to do is be attentive, speak when it’s my turn to and in a group setting, be the last person in the room to pass comment. That way, I’ll always be the most informed person in the room.