If you are completely focused on someone, that person will feel it. Having the undivided attention of someone feels good. Attention like this is probably why we remember certain experiences in a better light, as in the concierge at the St. Julien Hotel in Boulder who listened to me rambling about wanting dinner, but kind of later because I wanted to visit my friend’s twin babies first, and that I’m interested in locavore restaurants. The concierge set me up with an 8:30pm reservation at coveted Frasca restaurant, giving me time to really play with the babies before their bedtime, no rushing involved. On the other hand, I felt completely misunderstood when I asked a different concierge at a hotel in Philadelphia for “the prettiest way, maybe passing through a park” to walk through town to Independence Hall. I was handed a tourist map and given a pat answer to walk down the street with all the mall shops on it. Seeing Burberry, H&M, Sephora, and Express was not pretty or park-like. It was the concierge’s idea of fun, maybe, and demonstrated that he had not listened. Feeling understood or dismissed makes a huge difference in an interaction with another person.
Paying full attention to someone makes them feel good. In my experience, people from all sorts of countries and professions will respond to me with more and more detail when they realize I am only thinking about them. They are willing to unfold their thought processes to me; some people even express revelations in the process of explaining themselves. Nearly everyone ends the session thanking me for such a good discussion.
I love doing this. I have developed a practice of getting people to tell me stories at gatherings that have nothing to do with work, like at a food court in a mall. I’ll be standing next to someone in line, for instance, and make some comment about the circumstances or about what they are wearing or carrying. I’ll listen and ask for more detail. I’ll find out why they reacted some way or why they made some decision. Within a few minutes a complete stranger will feel comfortable enough to explain a story to me. We are, of course, in the relative safety of a gathering, which helps. But the fact that I am concentrating on their answers, rather than trying to make a point of my own or trying to count out money for my lunch bill, makes that person feel a little cherished. I practice this in unofficial settings so that I’ll be skillful when interviewing people for generative research.