I sit face to face with a complete stranger. I’m feeling uncomfortable. They shift and smile awkwardly as we both try to keep eye contact. We haven’t been properly introduced, and that’s the point. The stranger has three minutes to tell me who they are and how they got here. I must not interrupt and listen as deeply as I can.
When the stranger finishes their story, I’m instructed to recount what they have told me. The twist is that I must use the first person singular ‘I’. Scouring my mind to reconstruct what was told over the last three minutes, ‘I’ step into my partner’s shoes.
‘So… you… no… I am from Canada. I am a designer and….’ Stressing the ‘I’, makes me feel like I’m gritting my teeth, trying so hard to internalise someone else’s story. And in trying so hard to remember every detail, I have ‘not heard’ 90% of what the other person has said. Being ‘empathetic’ under pressure is difficult.
Alastair Somerville, a sensory design consultant and one time counsellor, designed this face-to-face interview technique to illustrate how difficult it is to listen and ask questions effectively. In his Architecting Emotions workshop he revealed how emotions are crucial to effective communication between humans and technology, and how this cold disembodied interaction with machines might become more ‘human’.
We are bad listeners
Alastair made me repeat the interview exercise three times. At first, I could barely recount what was told. Only on the third try, feeling more confident, I became better at remembering details. It was a slow and difficult process being attentive on demand.
He then asked me to do the exercise a fourth time, but to interject and ask questions when I thought I could detect emotion, either sadness, anger or happiness from my interviewee. Thinking I had done well, Alastair pointed out that I had made some errors; inputting my own feelings and experiences into the questioning and not extracting insights in any meaningful way.
Not only is it hard to listen for the salient emotions, it’s also difficult to draw them out without affecting them. We tear what we touch.
When we talk with another person in normal conversation, we tend to ask questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’. We talk at every turn, trying to coax a satisfying answer from them. Being so direct feels like the correct thing to do, but does nothing to give voice to the person’s real feelings.
Recounting emotional events blocks everyone’s cognitive abilities, making us unable to pinpoint and analyse our emotions. An emotion like anger or shame cloud our thoughts, constricts our cognition, making us unable to say what we mean, therefore it’s difficult to gain authentic insights from people we question.
A better way of communicating is to ask a question and then step out of the frame. The person may not know the answer, so we reflect the question back, holding up a mirror so they can work it out for themselves, instead of trying to answer it for them.
Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT realised this when he created the first natural language computer program called ELIZA in 1966, a precursor to the chatbot. ELIZA didn’t need to know anything about the person it was interacting with to elicit genuine information. It reflected questions back to the person, and many happily divulged personal information about themselves.
Jumping in with our own experiences is ineffective in eliciting an answer during an interview. Therefore, reflection and paraphrasing are key skills. This is to prevent our stories and ideas taking up room in the client’s space.
Alastair summed this up by saying that ‘when people are given limited ways of communication, they only have limited tools to express themselves’. Empathy is about stepping into someone’s space, but this demands trust, respect and stepping out of the frame.
Steps for more effective communication
- Avoid butting in and give the person space
- Give the person time to reflect on the questions you ask
- Avoid using your personal experiences to appear empathetic
- Try to extract an emotion and let them name the emotion for themselves
- Acuity Design, sensory design consultancy
- Susanne Vogel & Lars Schwabe, Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom
- Joseph Weizenbaum, Eliza Demo