The Art of Listening

“Okay, that’s it. Time Out!”

Through the wailing and sobbing I hear, “I listening. I sorry.”

This is a common response from my 2 year-old son when he’s placed in time-out for something I’ve asked him repeatedly not to do. In my head I’m thinking, “No. You’re not listening otherwise you wouldn’t have done it.” (okay, sometimes I say it, too). Generally, I thank him for apologizing and try to emphasize, “You need to listen. If you listen and do as I ask, then you won’t have to be in time out.”

Aside from all the parents out there, does this situation sound at all familiar? What about the designer-client relationship? How many times have you been placed in ‘time out’ by a client because you didn’t do as they asked? You weren’t listening. If you had only done what they asked everyone would be happy, right? Wrong—it is not that simple in a valuable designer-client relationship.

Several months ago HOW Magazine came out with a list of things young designers need to know—all great advice. However, I think they forgot one important piece of advice… listen. Listening is one of the most important things we as designers and communication professionals can learn to do. Notice I say ‘learn.’ That’s because I believe it’s a skill—something that must be developed.

As professionals, generally our first encounter with the practice of listening comes as a student. You develop an idea or physical piece, present it to others, and then listen and respond to criticism. Accepting criticism is a very important lesson because it’s something you will never escape. There will always be someone to offer opinions of your design. This is not a bad thing. In fact, most feedback you receive will only improve your final product. However, while designers must learn to listen to and accept criticism, we do not always need to react to these criticisms verbatim. Enter ‘the art of listening’ or active listening.

The problem with criticism is most students, and some professional designers, feel they need to remedy every issue thrown at them. I certainly did. The goal was to change and please; I was listening. However, at one point, I remember encountering a professor who practiced what I would consider mutual criticism. Her feedback was generally given one on one or in a small group. The critique always started off with a question directed towards myself; “What do you think?” This gave me the opportunity to examine and critique my own work. Generally my gut reactions were the same as the feedback she, or the group, would offer. It was a critique by discussion rather than by firing-squad. It also gave me the opportunity to say, “Hey. I know something is wrong here, but I’m not sure what the solution is.” I could open the door for solutions, listen and process the information rather than feel like I was being attacked with opinions. These types of critique sessions were probably my first taste of active, rather than reactive, listening.

My ‘ah, ha moment’ in active listening came while working as a graphic designer for Mission House Creative. I had the privilege to work with Creative Director Carol Roessner. She had an awe inspiring ability to listen, interpret and distill information from multiple sources. I can’t remember the exact project or even the exact issue. However, I remember the advice she gave regarding an assignment where I felt I was making the desired changes and still not pleasing the person making the requests.

Essentially, she told me it was my job as the designer to listen to what the person had to say and effectively ‘read between the lines.’ Not everyone can communicate what they want or why something feels ‘off.’ Listen to what they are saying and ask questions—the more the better. Don’t feel you need to provide answers right away. In fact, it’s generally better if you give yourself time to process the information and brainstorm solutions that are conceptually on-target, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Remember, in the end you and the client (or art director, creative director, colleague, etc.) are working toward the same goal—a successful communication piece.

Be forewarned, being able to listen to criticism, absorb the information and interpret the feedback into a solution that will satisfy your client is not always easy. I’ve come to learn, it doesn’t always work, either. Sometimes when a client says, “I want to make that bigger, rotate it 45 degrees, make it look like a neon sign and add a starburst” they aren’t just grasping at solutions to draw attention; that’s what they really want. My experience has taught me through collaborative communication and time you come to learn when a client is seeking your professional guidance and expertise and when their requests are not open to suggestion or interpretation; all due, in part, to the art of listening.

The next time you find yourself in ‘time out,’ despite your many efforts to remedy the situation, ask yourself, “Am I just hearing what my client is saying, or am I listening?” The differences are key and the payoff is exponential.