Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply. – Stephen Covey

The art of listening, a cornerstone of qualitative research, takes patience, focus and empathy. To help you understand the absolute power of focused listening, take a look at Jason…

Whenever Jason was around people, he always felt anxious. He rarely knew what to say and worried about what others were thinking of him. Jason found some solace, alone, in books. But he knew that he’d never find happiness unless he could share his passion, and his life, with others.

So when Jason discovered a local book club one spring day, he decided to attend a meeting – a social mixer and book discussion.

During the gathering, he tried something he’d never considered. He spent the evening simply listening to others and summarizing what they’d shared. He offered feedback such as “Let me see if I understand what you mean…” and “So you’re saying that the plot would’ve developed faster if …”

Everyone Jason met seemed to like him. After a while, he noticed something strange, something new: He wasn’t the least bit nervous. And he’d just made several new friends.

Jason’s life had changed significantly in just one evening. And all he had to do was listen.

As you can see from Jason’s story, deliberate, focused listening can help most anyone. But listening is particularly useful when in the hands of a trained qualitative research professional doing ethnographic studies.

The art of listening is becoming a rare commodity in a society immersed in digital distraction. A cynic may even argue that one day we’ll text and tweet more than we speak.

Add into the mix our everyday distractions – gridlock, errands, overcommitted schedules, work deadlines, the newest app – and we’re under pressure to keep pushing just to tread water. Our ability, even our willingness, to listen becomes lost in the shuffle. These days, a simple, distraction-free conversation can require a serious effort.

Carrying out a qualitative IDI or ethnography study also requires a serious effort. And a significant element of that effort involves active listening. It takes a singular focus on what a study participant is saying, and it’s a core skill in the market research profession.

Ethnographic research methods provide a rare block of time when your attention is solely dialed in to the conversation at hand. The respondent and her thoughts take center stage. Nobody is dealing with distractions, technical or otherwise. Ethnographies supply breathing room that helps transform distracted, driven “human doings” into relatable human beings.

I’m always glad whenever a study participant shares her appreciation of really being listened to. This happens on a regular basis. I believe that their appreciation has nothing to do with any study incentive and everything to do with really being heard, if only for a few hours. Participants feel good knowing that someone is actively hearing what they have to say.

As researchers, we must pay attention to what’s being shared, not just wait for our turn to speak. Like our courageous friend Jason the book lover, that can make a significant difference for your participants, for your study and for you.

“We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.” – Thomas Edison

Like so many other skills, our ability to listen during all types of ethnographic research can be developed. Here’s how:



A little small talk to get things rolling can go a long way. Take the first few minutes to establish yourself as a real person, not a tightly wound lab coat. It’ll set the tone for the rest of the time you’ll spend with the respondent. Act as if you were sitting next to the person on a plane, rather than in a research context. Look around and comment on anything you find interesting, like the framed photo of Mt. Everest or that SpongeBob doll on the couch.



Don’t overdo it; your goal isn’t to creep out your study participants. Rather, maintain friendly, relaxed eye contact throughout. Doing so shows them that you’re engaged in what they’re sharing.



There’s no better way to keep your participants relaxed. Sit somewhere comfortable, if possible, and maintain a natural, loose posture. Act as though you’re having dinner with a friend, not performing in a high-pressure job interview.



Set up your interview guide in a logical sequence that makes it easy to memorize. Glance at your questions only when necessary. The key is to spend more time looking at your respondent and less time reading your guide. Learn to take notes without looking down. These nonverbal cues reinforce your position as an active listener.



If the natural flow of your conversation takes you to a place you hadn’t foreseen, let it happen. It’s fine to go off topic or deviate from your questions. Pros such as Anderson Cooper and Jimmy Fallon do this for a living. Although they do their research and have “listening points,” they don’t adhere to any script. It’s human nature to deviate from a plan. Some of the richest, most revealing information can come to the fore as a relaxed conversation with your respondent naturally meanders.



It needn’t be a pasted-on Miss America grin. On the other hand, maintaining a poker face can make respondents feel nervous and less likely to open up about the topic at hand. Find your own middle ground.



Stop for a moment before asking for clarification and probing more deeply into a topic. Incorporating “micro-breaks” into your ethnographic research design allows your respondents to think further on their own. Pausing for a moment often encourages respondents to provide additional details concerning the question at hand.



Throughout the interview, encourage and validate your respondents while they’re providing answers. Phrases such as “Thank you for that,” “What you just said is really helpful” or “That’s so interesting” go a long way toward letting them know you’re listening to their valuable feedback. If your respondent is talking for a longer period, you can also nod your head to indicate that you’re with her.



Looking at your phone to get the time of day can be interpreted as rude. (“Is she playing ‘Angry Birds’ or listening?”) A watch, however, never fails. A quick glance provides you with the time, and your respondents will know you’re fully engaged in the conversation, not distracted by your smartphone. Better yet, if you don’t have anything pressing to do, leave the phone in your car.



Connecting to your respondent on an emotional level – putting yourself in her situation as she shares her experience – naturally promotes active listening. Conversely, focused listening can lead to a greater degree of empathy. The two build on each other. The result: a more productive interview and an appreciative respondent.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” – Ralph G. Nichols

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