1 Big idea to think about

  • Feeling understood is at the essence of what it means to be human. Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give another person. It helps others to feel seen, and it allows you to appreciate and accept others.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Observe feelings or distractions that may affect your ability to listen. You don’t have to remove or resolve them, simply recognizing them can help you determine if you are in a place where listening is possible.  
  • Have a better understanding of your listening ability by evaluating your listening reserves.

3 Questions to ask

  • In which situations do I find it difficult to listen? 
  • Are there specific individuals with whom I find it challenging to practice good listening?
  • What feelings or distractions may make it difficult for me to listen right now? (e.g., hunger, stress, personal relationships)

Key Moments From The Show 

  • ‘How well are you listening to your life?’ quiz (1:12)
  • The value of listening like you mean it (2:56)
  • The cost of not listening (4:14)
  • Why you should want to listen (7:03)
  • How listening can be an accelerant in our relationships (10:24)
  • The process of empathetic listening (12:37)
  • Listening requires effort (17:10)
  • What you can do to become a better listener (18:48)
  • Specific situations where you shouldn’t listen like you mean it (20:21)
  • How to redirect or reclaim unproductive conversations (22:12)
  • Listening for hidden needs (24:09)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection by Ximena Vengoechea

Connect with Ximena Vengoechea

Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn | Website


Greg McKeown, Ximena Vengoechea

Greg McKeown  0:04  

Come with me on an exploration of self discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day to day work, to learn how to build an essential life. Welcome back to the What’s Essential podcast. Thank you really, for being here. 


Take a moment. Breathe in. I’m your fully British, mostly essentialist host, Greg McEwen. So take a moment to be really here. Take a deep breath. Maybe I’m saying that for myself as much as for you, you know, perhaps you’re listening to this while you’re doing something else. Maybe you’re on a run, well done. Maybe you’re driving the car somewhere, be safe. Maybe you’re doing the washing up? Or you could even be walking down the beach somewhere, wherever you are.


I have a question for you. How well, are you listening to your life? In fact, let’s turn that into a quiz. I want you to ask yourself the following questions. And if you’re really courageous, you could even go beyond that and ask someone else to answer these questions about you for each question. Answer. Rarely, sometimes, or often. Here are the questions.


One, I am guilty of interrupting. 


Two, I am present when you talk, not texting, checking email, or looking at social media. 


Three, I dive in with my own story or experience. 


Four, when you communicate with me, you feel hurried.


Five, when we disagree, I offer understanding. 


Alright, that’s what we’re beginning with today. Why? Because here is what I have learned, the most essential part of life is relationships. And the most important part of relationships is communication. And the most essential part of communication is listening. So that’s why I’ve invited Ximena on the podcast today. Ximena is the author of Listen Like You Mean It. And at the end of this episode, you will have learned or remembered at least how to reclaim true connection, even in our age of distraction. And I think that has the power of relevancy because who doesn’t feel more isolated right now. In fact, sometimes we reach out to social media in order to feel a connection. And that’s somewhat satisfying, but just at a very surface level, deep connection requires deep listening to the people who matter most to us. So let’s get to it. Ximena Vengoechea, welcome to the What’s Essential podcast.


Ximena Vengoechea  2:43  

Thank you so much for having me,


Greg McKeown  2:45  

It really is a delight to talk with someone who has spent years and years practicing deep listening, I want to start with delving deeply into the question, why should people listen like you mean it? Why should someone do that?


Ximena Vengoechea  3:04  

Well, I think that we all have, as humans, a deep desire to be heard, to be known. And so I think that listening is one of the greatest gifts that you can offer someone else to really know someone to really understand someone and accept them through listening. And if we zoom out a little bit more, this kind of listening, where you are really deeply understanding someone, because you’re giving them your full attention, because you’re making space for whatever truth needs to come out, I think is not only valuable at a person to person level, but also when we think about teams, and how do they collaborate better? How do they align better, and zooming out more broadly, you could say it would similarly apply to the government, right and trying to get all parties to work cohesively. So I think whether you look at it at a macro level or a micro level, there’s just a ton of potential one, we are able to deeply listen, because it breeds understanding and acceptance, and therefore, collaboration, alignment and stronger relationships overall.


Greg McKeown  4:14  

There’s two ways to think about the question that I’ve asked. And your answer makes me think of the opposite of what you just said. In other words, to think about the cost of not listening.


Ximena Vengoechea  4:30  

I was gonna say, I think that’s right. And I think that that, that answer that direction of what do we stand to lose is behind why I decided to write the book when I did, in that we’re experiencing this broader moment, this cultural moment where I think many of us are having trouble getting through to each other are not feeling particularly heard, whether that’s through the conversations we’re having are being political and divisive. In a way, whether that’s because our communication has changed because the Internet has changed and social media has influenced how we communicate. But I think a lot of us are experiencing at a micro and a macro level, the sense of alienation, disconnection, lack of cohesion, that comes when that listening doesn’t exist, you know, it’s kind of two sides of the same coin. And when I think about why I chose this moment to really dig in and share these lessons, it is thinking about that greater risk of what do we have to lose? And I think the answer is actually a lot.


Greg McKeown  5:38  

Actually, a lot feels like quite an understatement of the macro issues you just raised in our lifetimes, I think we have not seen this level of discord, contention, and the inability to understand each other.


Ximena Vengoechea  6:01  

I think that’s true. And I think that, you know, one way of experiencing that is to feel that there’s no way forward, you know, to feel that this is so catastrophic. What is there that can be done now that we’ve kind of gone beyond the point of knowing even how to connect with each other. And I think that’s where I really see listening as as being the humble offering to say that, yes, it’s pretty dire. But what I love about listening is that it’s so deeply tied to what it means to be human. And in that way, as a solution to some of these problems, is actually likely to feel fairly familiar and intuitive. Even though we don’t intentionally listen in this way all the time. There’s something very human about it, that I think makes it accessible, it is a small thing that you can do in your day to day in order to move the needle on that, you know, feeling of disconnection and actually bring it more toward connection.


Greg McKeown  7:02  

Yeah, that leads me to push again, on this question, why selfishly? Should someone want to listen?


Ximena Vengoechea  7:09  

It’s a good question. And I think what I would say is that, you know, there are various circumstances in which listening is going to give you a leg up. So if we think about it, from what is in it for me, think about direct report, and a manager, if a manager can’t actually hear what their direct report is saying, they may lose trust or failed to build trust when they really need to with that person. There’s all sorts of outcomes. You know, in the case of direct report, let’s say what motivates them at work. So having this listening in your toolkit is really going to give you insight. And with that insight, you are able to do your job better, you know, my experience, my role and training is as a user researcher, and really, the purpose of the role is to understand customers, potential users, or existing users, and their underlying needs, and motivations and perceptions, in order to inform the company’s building of products, designing of products, so that you can essentially guarantee that those products are going to meet real people’s needs. And so again, you are extracting insight from these conversations in order to take some action. Overall, I would say listening helps you build understanding, you can use it to your advantage. So that can be for company for a team, it can be in understanding another person, so that you know a little bit more about what makes them tick. So I think that sometimes, and particularly culturally, we really have a strong emphasis on speaking, presenting, influencing, negotiating, and that’s okay. But to truly do that, effectively, I believe, you need to have the listening element, because that ultimately is going to inform how you negotiate how you influence how you persuade, etc.


Greg McKeown  8:57  

What happens if a company doesn’t have someone like you? Like, why do they pay for somebody to do this? Why is that investment worthwhile? And I think one could summarize it like this to avoid doing dumb stuff.


Ximena Vengoechea  9:11  

Yes. And I think if I could add maybe even a little more color to that, I would say, to avoid doing dumb stuff that sounds really good to one person or to a small set of people. Because often when you don’t have external voices that are really bringing in the voice of the customer, it’s very easy to just say, Hey, I think we should build a product around, let’s say, voice activation, and I think it’s going to be great. Okay, well, that’s one person. How do you know that’s gonna work? You don’t you have to talk to other people and gather diverse perspectives to see if this is actually a real problem that needs solving or maybe if it’s just a problem for you, the inventor or the entrepreneur.


Greg McKeown  9:56  

The pivotal role of listening to understand it’s pivotal because you can get literally everything else, right? And it won’t amount to a hill of beans if it doesn’t address what actually somebody wants and needs in this moment. 


Ximena Vengoechea  10:15  

And I think that sometimes there’s a hesitancy to pull in these diverse voices that are going to help you uncover those needs. But I think of listening actually as a very targeted accelerant, because you do have to slow down a little bit in order to gather that information. But then once you have it, you’re able to move much, much faster, because you’ve already narrowed down what you’re trying to do. Because you have data, you have information. And so it allows you to be more strategic.


Greg McKeown  10:45  

I concurred so completely with what you just said about it being an accelerant. It’s exactly the opposite of what people think it is. And that can be true at an organizational level, a team level, but also in just one on one relationships, if I’m trying to talk to my teenager, and I’m tired out and they say something that just seems ridiculous. Well, the impatience leads to saying, Well, let me just try and fix this right now, I’ll just try to be efficient. Well, let me just tell you what really needs to happen. Let me tell you how you need to see this, let me tell you what to do. And that’s the way to have the slowest progress, because you can push that whole thing way backwards. Now you can have a disagreement. Now you could have a big argument. Now, you could just have someone just desperately trying again, and again, to restate and reinforce what they’re saying, advocate their position even more deeply dig in their heels, sometimes defending the undefendable, sometimes defending something they themselves don’t fully believe. But underneath that defense is them saying I don’t feel hurt. And that’s so violating that I’m going to keep arguing in an attempt to have that deeper need met.


Ximena Vengoechea  12:06  

Yes. And I think that, that impatient version of ourselves, you know, sometimes it’s impatient. Sometimes it’s just that we’re not paying attention. Meaning that there are many ways in which we can do it wrong, listening, you know, we may be distracted, we may be tired, we may be hungry, and our hunger pangs are distracting us. There are so many things that can get in the way and keep us at the surface level of listening. That if we’re able to manage that, then we can go into this deeper level, which is what I call empathetic listening, where you are able to tune into what is the need being expressed in this conversation? What does your teenager need out of this exchange? Is it advice? Or is it validation? Is it words of encouragement? Is it nothing at all? Because sometimes, all the other person needs is just to be heard.


Greg McKeown  13:10  

I think what you’re saying is that 90% of the challenge of listening, is getting out of the noise that’s already competing for our attention inside of us.


Ximena Vengoechea  13:26  

And I think maybe even not even getting out of the noise, although sometimes yes, but sometimes it’s just observing the noise and knowing that it’s there, and knowing that it’s playing a role, that can be just as useful to say, Oh, I’m having a really strong response to this. Why is that? Maybe maybe I do need to hit pause on this conversation in order to really effectively Listen,


Greg McKeown  13:48  

you’re saying, You don’t need to silence? What’s going on inside of you, in order to better listen, just being aware of it will inform you better about how to proceed.


Ximena Vengoechea  14:02  

Yes, we can aspire to that state, but also, we’re human. And what’s likely to happen is that those things will always exist to a degree. It’s more about recognizing that, identifying it, knowing what you’re working with, so that you can use things to your advantage in a conversation with listening, if you can, for that conversation, reach this higher level where you’ve really completely emptied out all the distractions. That’s great. It’s more like an ongoing process. And so we’re constantly identifying and then you know, labeling and setting it aside and coming back to center. And managing that again. I mean, I think anyone who’s meditated is familiar with this sort of cycle of you’re always working on it.


Greg McKeown  14:45  

Yes. What I think you were trying to say was, you don’t have to become a Zen master first before you can be involved in useful, helpful, effective listening with others. Yes, that’s right. There was a self assessment right at the beginning of The book, it’s technically before the book itself starts as in the introduction, establish your listening baseline. I’m going to ask these questions so that people can do a self assessment right now. I’m going to give four scenarios. And people need to answer whatever is true for them. One, a sibling? Is waxing poetic on a topic you don’t care about, do you a check your phone be changed the subject, see, find something you can get curious about the nod and smile. I was going to read them all. But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just start with that one. So here I am. 20 years, more really, probably 25 years into this deliberate journey. And I like I wrote a not that I would do that in front of someone. No, I wouldn’t do that. But like, if I was in a situation, I could see myself doing that. That’s, that’s what I’m saying. I could see myself going oh, yeah, that’s just that’s just boring. Okay, I will, I’m just going to do something here. And here’s, here’s, here’s why. Just reading about this. And this is some research from 1957. What what this researcher said was, our brains are processing faster than the words that are coming out of somebody else’s mouth. So it creates almost an inherent boredom for part of our brain. Every time anyone is ever speaking, the inefficiency of words to meaning mean that we actually can listen at a surface level to what somebody is saying. So what he was observing was, it’s what we do with that excess capacity. That makes all the difference. If we say, Okay, well, I’ll just go on autopilot here, because this isn’t interesting. And I’ll put all my mind on the rest of my mind on something else, then, of course, we’ll start to miss things. And then we’ll be disconnected. And we’ll feel disconnected, and they’ll feel disconnected. And we have all these other problems we’ve talked about. Someone can be a great listener in one situation, and the next moment, be an appalling listener, with the next person. Does that sound? Right? What are your thoughts?


Ximena Vengoechea  17:08  

I would agree with that. And I think that’s because listening requires effort. So there are various passive listening. Yeah, sure, you can, you can hear enough of what’s being said. But the type of listening that we’re talking about requires effort. And I think as all of us know, it’s hard to be on all the time, with whatever you’re working on, in this case, listening, it is going to be hard to practice that for your entire day. Listening is like a muscle, it’s like any muscle, it gets stronger, you get better, the more you practice it, and it does require practice, and you will get to a certain threshold in which it does get a little bit easier. And then you’ll also have off days, and you’ll need to recover from that. And that’s okay, too.


Greg McKeown  17:54  

Yes, I had a meeting of the minds moment with you, in part three of the book, I mean, there’s a whole part it’s a shorter part, but nevertheless, on rest and recharge, specifically from listener drain, I totally relate to that. I remember spending an entire day doing speed coaching sessions with one person after another after another after another, and having to be in deep listening mode. Again, and again. And again, let’s say it was something like 10 or 12. Sessions in one day, and 20 over a two day period. It was absolutely exhausting. It was absolutely draining. It was so positive. It was such powerful moments, there were some really life changing things. You’re saying rest and recuperate. Be aware of it specifically can somebody do to get stronger at it? Is it just repetition? Or are there other things that you’ve learned for actually being able to increase your listening insurance?


Ximena Vengoechea  18:59  

I think it is partly the practice element that I was talking about. But the other part, I would go back to self awareness and to really understanding, you know, what do your listening reserves look like? Because it’s going to be different for everyone. What are the situations in which you may be run out of gas on listening faster than others or the relationships in which you walk away feeling a bit more drained? So I go back to you know, understanding these things about ourselves so that you can come in a little bit more prepared. And also particularly in the case of recovering from deep listening to also thinking about where there may be an imbalance. What relationships maybe do you find yourself in that role of armchair therapist or receiving everything the other person has to say without getting your cup filled as well because Conversation is a give and take, it does have both parties, because that can be very draining to. So thinking about, you know, the relationships in your lives and the kinds of conversations are happening, and where things might be off balance is a good place to start and kind of audit and see if changes are needed.


Greg McKeown  20:20  

When Shouldn’t we listen like we made it? What’s the exception to this?


Ximena Vengoechea  20:26  

One is when there’s an element of how should I put this almost that there is some kind of convenience needed, right, there’s, there is a known agreed upon transaction. So I go back to checking out your groceries, of course, it’s lovely to have a conversation with the cashier. But ultimately, each person is focusing on something different. The goal is not necessarily, although it can be, but it’s not necessarily to build a strong connection in that moment. So there’s a category of conversations in which you could say, maybe that’s not where I start, I want to start on the deeper relationships, and improving listening there. The other area, I would say is if there is a risk for you, as a listener, in terms of internalizing someone else’s trauma, in terms of taking too much on for the other person in terms of not differentiating yourself from the other person. That’s where I think it’s also worth kind of zooming out and looking at what is happening. And is this level of listening, serving me in this relationship? Or perhaps, are some boundaries needed? In this scenario?


Greg McKeown  21:41  

I love both scenarios, right? If somebody says, Hey, where’s the bathroom? You don’t have to say, you know, Wow, you really got to go, you know. So transactional, you know, I could see that, and event word that you just used as a really important one risk, that, that if there’s risk to you, you don’t have to just experience and put yourself through, well, anything that emotionally traumatic, there’s, there are things that you’ve talked about, in the book about redirecting a conversation? How do you do that? Maybe when you’re dealing with somebody who is becoming dogmatic? Or they’re certainly not involved in a dialog with you anymore? At How can you try to make it a useful dialog? Again, what skills are there for that?


Ximena Vengoechea  22:31  

Well, I think the first part is identifying whether you can make it useful. So there’s a difference between wanting to make it useful and really having the ability to and that impart depends on the openness of the other person. So there may be situations in which that’s just not going to happen, in which case, your best bet is to gracefully exit the conversation to say something like, you know, this is so interesting. And I’m, I’ve really appreciated hearing your perspective on this, I actually have to run now, you know, I can’t give this any more time, basically, some version of Thank you. And now I need to go attend to other competing priorities, and then redirecting, and that you can be honest, and say, you know, this was so interesting. I’m really interested in your perspective on, you know, another part of this argument, which is XYZ, whatever it is that you have to contribute to it, you can be even more pointed if the relationship can handle it and say, I’m so glad that I can be here for you in this way. I’m also hoping that you can be here for me in a similar way, would you be open to shifting the conversation toward x. So you give the person a chance to say yes, to opt in to the direction that you’re shifting to. So I think those are some of the things that you can try depending on the other person’s openness. And depending on the level of trust that’s that exists between you.


Greg McKeown  24:08  

In the book, there’s a page that I personally really found useful. It’s a chart that’s called listen for hidden needs. I found it really great. So let me just go through these here. If somebody is saying, I wish that if only I could, if I had things my way. What is the meaning of that? You’re saying that what’s behind that is desire opportunity. If they say, I’m swamped, I’m exhausted and running out of steam. Haven’t got as much done today, as I would like to have done. You say what they mean is a plea for help. I thought that was such a helpful practical way to interpret these phrases better. Can you unpack that more for us? 


Ximena Vengoechea  24:53  

Sure. I mean, I think what this chart represents is the idea that We can hear things in one way and completely miss the underlying meaning. And that in particular, most of us have a hard time saying things like, I really need your help. Or this is my deepest desire. But sometimes we walk around it. And we use phrases like this, to hint at an underlying need. And we all do this, we do this because we’re afraid of being vulnerable with someone. We do this because we think we’re being really explicit. But we’re not. We do this while we’re processing out loud, maybe we just haven’t even realized, Oh, I’m swamped. What is the underlying need? Okay, I’m going to get there by talking about it. It would be much easier if we were explicit, but we’re often not. And so the point is to start to be a tune to some of these phrases, and cues and really start to unpack. Okay, what is the underlying need here. And so you learn to listen for these signals, and then to follow up. So if you hear something and think, Okay, that’s a plea for help, then you can begin to learn more about, Well, what exactly is needed, what kind of help is needed? Who is it needed from? So that’s really what this chart is about, it’s about starting to listen in conversation for that underlying need. And knowing that there are certain phrases that can kind of tip you off that there might be a little bit more to dig into.


Greg McKeown  26:28  

Well, that’s what’s so brilliant about it is the idea, the specific phrases that we’ve all heard, and so if you can really sort of memorize this table, then it could change your understanding of those everyday interactions. And other when you put here is a phrases like, I never know what to do when, or I can’t figure out, you know, the hidden meaning is need for direction, really your expertise. And having gone through these how many times I mean, how many sessions have you run in your lifetime?


Ximena Vengoechea  27:03  

I mean, plenty I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years, at this time, too many to count,


Greg McKeown  27:08  

If you have to choose based on your experience where people are weakest. Are they weakest in saying what they mean? Like a knowing what they mean? And saying it, I need this, I want this? Or are they weaker in listening to other people and drawing out from them what they need, and what they want, which is the weakest of the two?


Ximena Vengoechea  27:35  

I think this is culturally dependent, because I can think of places where speaking up is not only expected but encouraged. It is just it’s part of the package. I would say. I think that listening, especially if we think about the US, I think that listening is the weaker skill. While I think speaking up is a little bit stronger here. We’re not always as effective in it, as we think we’re many of us are comfortable speaking up. But we’re not always saying exactly what we mean. And it can take a few tries to get there. But there’s more of a willingness, I think, usually to try. 


Greg McKeown  28:27  

And I think that goes back to our general focus on having our voices heard as being the number one goal in a conversation in those very collaborative communal cultures where you’re wanting to make sure nobody loses face in any public way. You have to be very careful about just saying what you mean. I assume that’s what you meant. But maybe I’m wrong about this. Is that what you were thinking in contrast to, for example, the United States?


Ximena Vengoechea  28:47  

Yes, the US is very individualistic by nature, which is a completely different approach to how you navigate conversations and relationships and all sorts of things.


Greg McKeown  28:57  

Ximena, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you today. It’s a marvelous book, listen, like you mean it claiming the lost art of true connection full of specific things. I mean, especially if somebody has never read a book on listening, listen, like you mean it is just a terrific place for them to start in that journey. And you’re a marvelous guide for us today. And in the book as well. It’s a pleasure to have you on the what’s essential podcast.


Ximena Vengoechea  29:27  

Thank you so much. This conversation was wonderful. It’s fun to get to geek out on listening. So I appreciate all the thoughtful questions.


Greg McKeown  29:38  

Well, there we have it. We’ve come to that time again, the end of the show. Thank you for listening for investing in you. Even with all that you have going on. You’re taking a moment to think about what’s essential. And what’s most essential in this life surely, is relationships. And what’s most essential in relationships is our communication. What’s most essential in our communication is our listening and our listening ability seems to be under so much attack. If you found value in today’s episode, please write a review on Apple podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of effortless make it easier to do what matters most. You just send a photo of your review to info at Greg mcewen.com. That’s i n fo at GREG.MCKEOWN.com. Enjoy today, focus on what’s most important, and we’ll see you next week when you tune in for another exciting episode of the Watson central podcast.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Greg McKeown


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