- lessons learned from one of the first psychological models I got to know

“If they would only listen to me they would understand why this is such a great idea” might be a sentence you have come across at work or in private life - maybe you even thought it yourself! In this article, I will share three lessons based on my experience that helped me improve my listening skills. Also, I’ll explain how and why the improvements differ depending on context and why this helps being heard in the long run.

 Why it’s hard to listen attentively all the time

We love to listen - to music, to podcasts, to sounds of nature and to many other things. We start with it very early on, even before we are born. We can even hear things that aren’t audible to anyone else - may it be an inner voice or a tinnitus. Yet it can pose quite a challenge for us humans to listen to other humans. We don’t always have the capacity to be fully focused on what others say, so we apply patterns or interferences while listening, which can create problems and misunderstandings. A potential explanation for this phenomenon is the 125/400 rule, also called speech-thought differential. We can speak at a rate of 125 - 145 words per minute while we can understand up to 400 words per minute, creating gaps that our brain tries to fill with thought or distraction.

Schulz von Thun’s communication model

I was 16 when I first heard of Schulz von Thun and his four sides communication model and started to experiment with analysing conversations based on how people send a message and how I would receive it and vice versa. This caused teenage drama but more often solved it. ;)
Here is a graph of the model:

To make this more tangible, imagine someone coming up to you and asking: “Do you know the way to the train station?” Let’s analyse the question based on the four sides.

  • Factual Information: “I want to know if you know the way to the train station.”
  • Appeal: “Tell me what way the train station is.”
  • Relationship: “I trust you to help me find my way.”
  • Self-revelation: “I am lost and cannot find the way to the train station alone.”

Now imagine you had a bad experience in the past getting lost in a big city because no one helped you find the way. This experience might make you more receptive to the self-revelation side of the message, hearing that this person is relying on you to help them, making it more likely that you respond instead of keep walking.

This simple example doesn’t showcase the true value of this model but it gives you an idea of how to apply it and how broadly applicable it is.

Lesson 1: Listen to all sides of a message, especially when talking to customers

Once I started doing customer interviews when testing a product or service, von Thun's communication model was very helpful for me to improve in differentiating between what customers “say” (often meaning factual information only) and what they actually “mean” (referring to the other sides that are “unheard”). This is very important to generate true value for customers: only when we find out what underlying problem to solve can the product or service succeed in the long run. The identified solution can be scaled by quantifying the identified needs or problems.
I’d like to share an experience to showcase what we can learn from customers when listening to their message from all sides. In a customer testing for a new search result page (SRP) design, a customer told me the following: “The more search results there are, the more important the pictures become, as this is where I make my first selection.”

At first glance, this statement seems kind of obvious: 

  • Factual information: “I look at the pictures as the main source of info to decide if I want to go down the funnel.”

But let's look at the statement in more depth:

  • Appeal: “Give me high-quality pictures as early on in the search as possible.” → I learned that in order to increase the efficiency of the search process, customers need access to all available pictures early on.
  • Relationship: “I trust you to understand what I care about and look for so that you can improve my experience.” → In a user test, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is often prefixed by the experimental set-up. If you try to emphasize the relationship side of the communication, you become the participant’s confidant, making them feel at ease and speak more openly.
  • Self-revelation: “When there is a large selection, I trust visual cues to guide me in the right direction.” → This finding is in line with many studies in the field of first impressions, including my master thesis: first impressions are mostly based on aesthetics, and they influence our decisions about whether to start engaging with something or not. Usability is a second, delayed step which then determines whether or not we find the interaction pleasant.

As you can see, there are many lessons to be learned even from such a simple statement. Better listening enabled me to receive more timeless insights on customers and their needs than if I had only limited my listening to statements that were relevant to the test design at hand. If you just started talking to customers, here is a guide on how to avoid other interviewer pitfalls.

Lesson 2: Know your weaknesses when listening 

Keep in mind that listening is situational and relational, meaning we listen differently in different contexts and scenarios. Being aware of this increases your possibilities to monitor what type of listener you are in which context and to train different sides of your listening skill depending on the weaknesses you identified. The most common “listening villain” types are the following four (source):

  • Dramatic: (over)engaged in the emotional and dramatic aspects of the story, creating distractions from these peaks rather than enabling a present listening style
  • Interrupting: cutting the speaker off, finishing their sentences or talking over them
  • Lost: getting distracted by a diverging train of thought or a different thought altogether
  • Shrewd: thoughts and premature assumptions or responses based on what we already heard engage our thoughts, so we stop listening

Once we know what our weakness is in a certain context, we can start improving our listening skills. For example, where there is a lot of noise around me, I morph into a "lost" listener, getting distracted easily. That's why I try to have important conversations in a quiet environment. There is a variety of exercises, further literature and theories specific to certain contexts that can be drawn from to help us do so. I won’t go into further detail as it is critical to first figure out where the problem lies before starting to work on a solution.

Lesson 3: Tricks for better listening in the context of stakeholder management

Looking at communication with stakeholders, the model from Schulz von Thun can also be used. However, in this context we seldom take the time to reflect on what has been said in depth and map out the four sides. Don’t force the model onto every situation - rather, try to figure out when it is worth to analyse what has been said in more depth and when to work with other tricks. Try to hear your stakeholders’ concerns and hopes by using some of the following tricks that have been very helpful for me:

  • Listen for differentiators between assumptions and insights.
    Explicitly ask if you are unsure - usually the response then informs you about motivations, hopes and concerns, or in the best case you discover an additional data stream you didn’t know before. The positive side-effect is that it is easier to weigh the importance of statements once it becomes clear to all what the facts are and what the opinions are. Mapping this onto von Thun’s model: As the receiver you can demand, via the appeal side, that the sender specifies what is factual info and what is self-revelation in their statement.
  • Empathise with your stakeholders by learning what they focus on the most.
    You can tell the story of your insights with your stakeholders' perspective in mind to show how it relates to the customer and why it matters to consider the customer. This is especially helpful if your insights are not in line with the expected or desired outcome. Utilize the relationship side of the messages you send to ensure that your stakeholders know you considered their perspective.
  • Check if there is alignment on goals, outcomes and terminology between you and stakeholders by letting them phrase or describe these in their own words.
    This helps you to clarify any misunderstandings and avoid false expectations from the beginning, while also enabling you to maximise the impact of your insights by using terminology the stakeholders are already familiar with. This way you make sure that the factual information content is streamlined and unified.
  • When in doubt - always ask why.
    This can be useful in the stakeholder context and for user testing. Instead of jumping to conclusions or letting your emotions carry you away due to disagreements, it always helps to gain perspective by asking why something is the way it is or why someone has the opinion they do. When you encourage someone to elaborate, you can understand better and support them in bringing their point across, making it easier to allow all four sides of a message to be shared and thus heard.

If you listen well enough, you can make yourself heard for the right reasons: (really) hearing, understanding, and empathising with your customers and stakeholders lays the foundation for you and others to understand how to improve your services, products and processes.

Laura Quintana

Laura Quintana

Laura can be compared to her hairdo: ballsy, fascinating and a bit askew. Food (especially sweets) and danceable music make her heart beat faster. In her free time, she is often on the road to explore more places across the world. After engaging at the University of Basel and Google for unique user experiences, she now wants to delight Tamedia product users by researching exactly what they want and what they don’t.