How to Listen

Erin Anderson

Our most important job here at Brain Traffic isn’t information architecture. It isn’t content creation, or even copywriting …

Nope, it’s good old-fashioned listening.

I mean the kind of listening that demands our active attention and participation. The kind that leaves us with the information we need to recommend truly smart, thoughtful web content solutions. The kind that requires we really focus on YOU.

So whether we’re scoping a project, clarifying user goals, or managing rounds of client feedback, we all hold fast to a few rules for active listening around these parts.*

Keep an open mind.

We may have created content for a dozen healthcare websites over the years. But that doesn’t mean we automatically know the unique challenges your healthcare company faces as you fight to get your new site off the ground.

That's why we mindfully avoid assuming we know where the discussion is going before it gets there. We’ll let you speak for yourself. It’s only polite.

Lead with “open” questions.

Open questions start with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” or “how.” It's straight up Journalism 101. If we're getting yes/no answers from you, it means we’re being lazy reporters. And it means our conversation can only scratch the surface in terms of uncovering your needs and goals.

Get comfy with silence.

If our question to you is met with dead air or a frowny face, we're likely squirming in our ergonomic chairs. It's just human nature. So we count to 10 (in our heads, don’t worry) while you organize your thoughts. Because jumping in to fill that void might prevent you from collecting your ideas and articulating a particularly illuminating response.

Ask the “stupid” questions.

We wouldn't be doing anyone any favors by pretending we have all the answers. And we feel very strongly that the success of your project depends in part on us being bold enough to not take anything for granted. So we make a point to ask at least one “stupid” question in each client meeting.

Being not entirely shameless, however, we do practice some super sneaky tactics:

  • “I know we’ve been talking about this for a while, but could you just clarify one thing for me?”
  • “I’m afraid your users might not understand this fully. Could you take a minute to break it down so I can explain it in very basic terms?”
  • “You'll have to excuse me. This is probably a stupid question, but…”

Our willingness to humble ourselves in that regard seems to really resonate with our clients. Because in many cases, voicing our confusion helps them quickly pinpoint gaps in their content universe.

Be curious.

There we are, asking you our thoughtfully stupid, open questions, and waiting patiently for your equally thoughtful answers. Suddenly it hits us: We know precisely how to solve all your website woes. Nice.

But wait! Now is not the time to share our brilliant plan. We may have an inkling about where your main pain points lie. But we need to know more. Where did these issues originate? How long have they been plaguing your company? Whom do they affect? How exactly would your life be easier if we made them go away?   

Now we’re finally getting somewhere together. And as it turns out, we suddenly have an even better plan to share.

*Bonus: These techniques have multiple applications outside the work environment. Try them on your friends! Your in-laws! Your pets!