Want to Really Listen? Unlearn the Scientific Method

John Follett

John Carter, Founder, TCGen Inc.

For technology companies, the growth and success of individuals (and the company) can be inhibited by poor communications. This can have deep implications for how your company interacts with customers, which can, in turn, impact your Product Development Strategy. 

In part, a lack of solid communication skills is due to the fact that many of the key contributors are engineers or other technical professionals. Such people (and I am one) were educated and steeped in the scientific method of discovery and analysis. 

Here’s a simple version of this method:

  • Pick a topic or problem
  • Collect some data
  • Form a hypothesis or model that is consistent with the data
  • Conduct experiments or otherwise collect additional data
  • Test to determine if those data are consistent with the model
  • If not, change the model or get a new one
  • Repeat these steps for refinement

This procedure works extremely well for discovering phenomena of nature and inventing new gadgets and systems. It is one of the most powerful learning tools in our intellectual toolbox. But it is a terrible way to listen to people.

Seeing From Another Person’s Perspective

The basis of really listening to people is to try to see the world from their model of it. Everyone has their own knowledge, emotions, experiences, and genetic predispositions from which they draw a unique worldview. Furthermore, each person is sure that the view they have is the correct and proper one. They are often frustrated that other, seemingly intelligent people don’t see it the same way.

If you are using the scientific method to listen, you’re usually starting with a preconceived notion of what the speaker is trying to say, a notion based entirely on the listener’s world view. You generally “experiment” with this model by asking “closed” questions – yes/no or multiple choice – to try to validate your own model.

Imagine that your family doctor listened in this way:

Patient: “Doc, I have a problem. Can you help me?”

Doctor: “You are pale and seem to be overweight. Do you feel any chest pain?”

Patient: “No. . .uh, I don’t think so. Maybe a little pressure, but. . .”

Doctor: “Do you have any tingling or numbness in your left arm?”

Patient: “Er, it seems to be normal. . .”

Doctor: “Do you feel any palpitations or rapid heartbeat?”

Patient: “Maybe a little after my coffee in the morning, but. . .”

Doctor: “Are you willing to take an EKG stress test on a jogging machine?”

Patient: “I would, but the problem I came to see you about is a sprained ankle!”

As Soon As You Start Selling, You Stop Listening

The exchange above may seem ludicrous and unlikely, but we see this type of conversation in the business world every day, particularly during sales calls. In fact, many business conversations involve a sale of some kind. Each person is trying to sell a product, a service, an idea, an opinion, or a call to action. As one “listens,” each person is subconsciously thinking “how does what she is saying validate or affect my worldview?” The result is that very few people really listen. 

They are collecting a few statements from the speaker, rapidly forming an opinion based on their own worldview, and then validating that opinion with closed questions.

How To Really Listen

The keys to real listening:

  1. Try to understand the speaker’s underlying mental model
  2. Ask only open-ended, non-presumptive questions
  3. Postpone forming an opinion
  4. Repeat back what the speaker said – verbatim!
  5. Don’t assume implications – ask the next question

The first action is to try to put aside as many presumptions as possible and see the point from the speaker’s viewpoint. It may take some probing questions to do so, but the questions should be open-ended. Never start with a presumptive statement that the speaker did not make. Also, don’t presume that you know every implication of the answers given to you. Instead, probe further.

Examples of open-ended and probing questions are:

  • Why?
  • How did that happen?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • What does that imply to you?

If your question is too long, then you are probably injecting some of your own worldview or a presumption of your own. In the extreme, news reporters and prosecutors are well-known for trying to trap interviewees with leading questions like: “Given the sad state of your financial policy, how are you going to approach new spending?” This statement is just the reporter’s opinion disguised as a question.

Postpone Forming An Opinion

It takes a lot of conscious practice, especially for analytical people like me, to postpone forming an opinion. When discussing issues, we want to understand the problem rapidly and jump to a solution. We don’t want to waste time with a lot of peripheral discussion, especially around feelings and emotion.

One trick for postponement is to repeat the speaker’s statement pretty much verbatim. This trick has two benefits: first, it forces us to formulate the question exactly as asked, not paraphrased. Paraphrasing a question always filters or changes some of the original intent, usually through our worldview. Secondly, it helps to prevent us from jumping to a conclusion or opinion.

After repeating the question, the next question should usually be about the implications of the last answer. “How did that affect you?” “What do you think will come of it?” It is very tempting to assume that we know the answers to those questions and jump to a conclusion or another topic.

Only when you feel that you understand the point and the point-of-view of the speaker should you weigh in with your response. Even then, it is a good practice to begin with a statement something like: “I think I understand why you would see it that way, but from my point of view...”

Listening Is A Skill

Real listening is a skill that can be learned but, like any skill, it takes discipline and constant practice. Getting better at listening can benefit you in every aspect of your life – work, social life, and family. Teaching and practicing listening skills with your employees and partners can also greatly benefit your company. For product developers and product managers, it is an essential skill for understanding customers and getting to their real pain points.


John Carter is a widely respected adviser to technology firms and the author of Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development. He is Founder and Principal of TCGen Inc. He has advised some of the most revered technology firms in the world including Apple, Amazon, Cisco, HP, IBM and Roche.