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At a time in which distractions seem to multiply by the second thanks to the omnipresence of screens and social media, and COVID-19 pandemic has isolated us further, we’re all having a hard time truly listening to one another and connecting. Silicon Valley veteran Ximena Vengoechea wants to change that with her new book “Listen Like You Mean It.” On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks to the User Experience designer about her work at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, and the role tech companies have had on our ability to listen to one another.
“I think some of how we lost [our ability to listen] has been the sort of moment that we’re in, which is this culturally, politically divided moment, this technologically accelerated moment,” says Vengoechea, “where a lot of the core of why we might not listen as closely as maybe we should or we want to, comes down to actually really human behaviors, like getting distracted or having a strong emotional response to something.
“And this moment that we’re in, where we have these sort of social media megaphones and we have these very active political voices, there’s just more and more information, noise–however you want to see it–that can cloud out that desire to connect. The good thing is that because active listening is very human, we can tap into it again despite these circumstances.”
Scheer counters that part of the problem with the moment Vengoechea describes is rooted in profit-seeking Silicon Valley companies that design software and hardware to absorb our attention and feed on our very human desires with the ultimate aim of getting us to consume as much as possible. This, the podcast host argues, has had devastating consequences not just on our ability to listen or our wellbeing, but on the planet itself given that overconsumption is behind the climate crisis. This attention-grabbing model has also created obscene profits for tech barons such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others, on a never-before-seen scale, fueling record global inequality.
“I think we lost the art of listening over the last century and a half because of capitalism,” says Scheer. “And when we didn’t live in a capitalist society, because of totalitarianism. One way or another, we had state actors, we had private sector actors, basically trying to create static with advertising, with public relations, with the police state, with coercion, with propaganda. And listening really is obstructed by socially created, politically created noise.”
Facebook’s mission statement is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and yet the founder himself admitted to Congress during a hearing that the company’s true aim is to “run ads.” Listen to the full conversation between Vengoechea and Scheer as the two discuss their differing views on why as means of communication proliferate, these same means may be making it harder to connect with one another.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: And my guest today, and hopefully it’s going to be good intelligence going back and forth, is Ximena Vengoechea. That’s a Basque name, I’ve discovered. And what is interesting about Ximena is her work in an aspect of life that concerns my podcast, concerns a lot of what we do. Her most recent book is about listening, and reclaiming the lost art. It’s called Listen Like You Mean It, which is a good Silicon Valley title. And I was interested in it because one criticism of these podcasts is some people don’t think I listen effectively, or well enough; I interrupt too much, I’m already doing it with too long an introduction before we get to you.
But I am interested, because I have as a journalist found that listening was the most difficult thing to develop–not just for me; I tell my students that at USC. And “putting your listening ears on” is a phrase that I’ve used, and I’ve interviewed people that I had serious disagreements with, like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro and a lot of people around the world. And I always said–and I say to my students–you have to put yourself in their shoes. And reading your book, it’s really a good guide to putting yourself in the shoes of the person you’re listening to, and treating listening as an art form, as a way of studying, creating space, preserving your own energy, reflecting–I’m not going to go through all of your advice.
But I particularly wanted to have you on the show because I want to learn from you how to be a better listener. So why don’t you–and this is a book that’s published by Penguin Random House; it just came out. Again, the title is Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. Well, how did we lose this art? Let’s just begin with that.
XV: So I think some of how we lost it has just been the sort of moment that we’re in, which is this culturally, politically divided moment, this technologically accelerated moment. Where, you know, I think a lot of the core of why we might not listen as closely as maybe we should or we want to, comes down to actually really human behaviors, like getting distracted or having a strong emotional response to something. And this moment that we’re in, where we have these sort of social media megaphones and we have these very active political voices, there’s just more and more information, noise–however you want to see it–that can cloud out that desire to connect, and that can activate some of those really human impulses that I was mentioning earlier, of being distracted or having an emotional response to something. So the good thing is that because, I think, the active listening, it really is a very human one, we can tap into it again despite these circumstances.
RS: Well, but let me challenge–[Laughs] OK, I’m not supposed to–how would you suggest I approach this now? I sat back, I listened to what you said, and I want to reflect on it. And I think clearly the pandemic has been a life-altering event for most of us. I actually find myself listening better in the pandemic; I don’t have physical contact with people, so I have to strain to understand them, and I have plenty of time to reflect. In fact, following your advice list–even before I read your book I sort of was doing it myself anyway, to a degree. I actually find myself–but leaving the pandemic out of it for a minute, because I think your message is really more important. I think we lost the art of listening over the last century and a half because of capitalism. [Laughs] And when we didn’t live in a capitalist society, because of totalitarianism. But one way or another, we had state actors, we had private sector actors, basically trying to create static–that would be my view–with advertising, with public relations, with the police state, with the coercion, with propaganda. And listening really is obstructed by socially created, politically created noise. I wonder what you think about my own little theory about this.
XV: I think it’s probably a combination. I mean, I think that this is the sort of–if we zoom out a little bit, this is the “is it the system or is it the self,” right, which you could apply to many topics beyond listening. How much of, you know, how burnt out we are is because of the structures that are in place, versus “I’m overworking” as an individual. So I would say, yes, to a degree I’m sure that all of those pieces that you mentioned are elements. And also I think some of it is what we carry into our conversations as well. And some of that is absolutely affected by these larger structures, and some of that is really deeply personal, too. So I would say it’s probably a combination of those.
RS: So let me take the larger structures. And I didn’t give you a proper introduction, but you are a veteran of what we loosely call Silicon Valley. I gather you live in San Francisco. But it’s this industry we’re really talking about. And you actually define yourself as a user researcher, right, as well as a writer-illustrator, and so forth. And there’s actually a category, I don’t know what it was, XL or something, I was going to ask you about–no, UX, is that it?
XV: UX, yes. User experience.
RS: Oh, user experience. UX. So this is not Orwellian, this is scientific, right? It means the user experience, OK. But the reason I bring Orwell into it is sort of, to what degree is it the art of manipulation? Because after all, like, you’ve worked for Pinterest and LinkedIn and Twitter. Well, these are kind of noise machines, aren’t they? Don’t they get in the way of listening?
XV: So, yeah, if I understand your question, I think that, you know, what I would say is any skill can be used for ill, if that’s your intent, right? Learning how to persuade someone can be used for good or ill. You can apply it in any direction. I think, though, that as a user researcher, that role is really one of the, if not the most user-centric roles in tech. And what you’ll find when you talk to user researchers is that there’s a pride in that role, because they are advocates for the user. And what that really means is that they’re advocates for everyday people; they’re advocates for the people who use those products.
Now, every product–yes, right, Twitter can be very distracting; Twitter can also give us lots of information. But my job as a user researcher is to understand: what do people need, and how do these products fit into their lives? And also to say, you know, if I’m seeing something in a study where I say, you know what, this feature is not going to be a good use of this person’s time, because of what they’re looking for, because of what their needs are, their goals are, their motivations–my job as a user researcher is to advocate on their behalf. And to bring that forward to the product managers and engineers and designers who may really want to make some changes that I don’t agree with.
And so what you see, you know, [in] a product today, whichever of these products you’re interacting with, is the result of big ideas, big opinions, business needs, and also user needs. And my job is to make sure that those user needs are known and understood and tended to. So I think it’s a really important role to kind of counter some of the potential manipulation that could come up, you know, the potential dark patterns that could be used. Because our role is to really represent people outside of, you know, the walls of Silicon Valley. And that’s why a lot of the research that we do involves going to places outside of the Bay Area, because we want to talk to people outside of the tech bubble.
RS: Right, and just so I don’t steal this time to get people to read your book, let me give the title again: Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. I don’t think anyone could dispute that we feel less connected, that we do feel more alienated. And also, by the way, let me just state right out, I do think there’s a lot to be learned in your book about listening. And as I said, as a podcaster, as a journalist, and as somebody who also teaches that stuff, I do think that there is an art to listening. I have arguments all the time with friends of mine who are kind of liberal, about listening to the people who like Trump, for instance, for the last four years. I said, put on your listening ears; get yourself into a frame of mind–well, maybe they know something that you don’t know. Be self-critical. You know, all that kind of thing. And you know, I mean that very seriously, and I think that is sort of the message of your book: that listening is an art form, you have to work at it, you have to–am I summarizing it correctly? You have to get yourself into a proper mood, reflective, objective, and so forth. Maybe, why don’t you just give us the quick points, and then we can discuss the larger issues.
XV: Sure. I think, you know, what the book does is it’s really a guide as to how to approach conversations. Whether those conversations are really difficult and fraught ones, like maybe some of the political conversations that you’re referring to, or maybe, you know, less intense conversations, potentially. But the goal is really to understand the other person, and to understand their perspective, and to understand their emotions and their feelings. And I think that when we can get to that place, that’s where the real connection occurs. Because when you can understand someone just on a human-to-human level of, oh, this person is feeling shame–I’ve experienced shame. Oh, this person is being vulnerable with me–I know what that feels like. When we’re able to get to that deeper layer through what I call empathetic listening, that’s where that connection that so many of us long for, and have only in fleeting moments, really occurs. And so the book guides you through how to navigate conversations, and techniques, and those techniques come from my experience as a user researcher. Because the bread-and-butter of that field, particularly qualitative research, is you’re conducting conversations, research sessions, largely through conversations one-on-one, or group settings as well.
RS: Yeah. I want to get back to the user researcher, because I do have some issues with it, but I’m trying to give credit to your book, for advice that I learned from it and that others can learn, about listening. And so before we get to the more controversial issues, in your book you describe that, first of all, most conversations get to a point of intensity. If it’s dealing with somebody you’re working with, or dealing in your case with your–you can’t call them shrinks anymore–your therapist, right? You end the book with your therapist?
RS: Yes, and you concede that you had concerns about whether you were being honest fully with her, and whether she was really listening to you. It’s an interesting way, because you spend quite a time with your therapist, right? I don’t know, you said like years or something. And so I do think that all conversations get intense, whether they’re within a relationship, whether they’re in a workplace; right now we have very intense conversations about racist attitudes, about stereotypes of gender, you know, and what have you. And they’ve gotten into very big battles at institutions and so forth. And then again, it’s a question of listening.
So let’s take up some of those. What would be your advice to people who say, I have trouble listening to men, because men have been mean to me, and are powerful, or I have trouble listening to white people, or Black people, or brown people? You know, this is really very much a part of the current conversation: what language can you use, can you–teaching at an institution, can you bring up phrases or words that have been divisive, and so forth? What is a hostile environment? So listening–it’s very difficult to separate the controversy about listening now, and also free speech, which is the other end of listening, from these really worldwide controversies. And I think that, you know, one wonders whether it’s all therapeutic, in a sense, or whether it’s just really a question of what is critical thinking and how does speech relate to critical thinking?
XV: Absolutely. I think it’s true that many of our conversations, particularly now, may have larger stakes, right, than an ordinary dinner-table conversation. And I think that, you know, one thing that is important to keep in mind, and that I talk about in the book, is boundaries, right? So some of the examples that you’re giving–and I’m happy to talk about, you know, how should we approach those conversations, but I also just want to say up front that the goal isn’t always to, you know, push yourself too far as a listener. To become so emotionally activated that you don’t feel safe in the conversation. You know, so I just want to say that up front, that boundaries are reasonable; it’s good to have boundaries.
But if you are taking on one of these difficult conversations, I think there are a few things that you can do to navigate them. And one is just really intentionally and explicitly, up front, sharing what your intent is. So if I’m having a conversation that I know is going to be charged–let’s say it’s a political conversation–and I’m trying to understand the other person’s perspective, it is important for me to share, you know, up front, to say: Hey, you know, this conversation might get a little uncomfortable, because I know we’re coming at it from two different perspectives. I want you to know that my intent here is not to provoke you in any way; it’s really to understand you. Right? And so you’re just setting the stage and saying, hey, I’m just going to name this; this could get awkward. This could get uncomfortable. But here’s where I’m coming from. And by the way, that also allows the other person to say, like, oh, me too. Or, yeah, I’m nervous about that also. And it can cut some of that tension off the bat.
The other thing that I think is important when you’re having these conversations is to be hyperaware of what is coming up for you in the moment. Because often what stops us from being able to listen, particularly when it’s a kind of fraught conversation, is we are having an emotional experience to something that’s being said. So particularly if you’re talking about religion or politics, right, these are things that are–they’re really strong belief systems that we have. And so when someone says something that juts up against that, that can be very uncomfortable. And we can have a really strong emotional reaction, and then what happens is we don’t actually hear the other person anymore.
So being aware of what are those, I call them hotspots, for you as an individual. Some of them are, you know, the classic taboo topics; a lot of people get uncomfortable talking about money, OK, maybe that’s one to be aware of. Some of them are really personal and have to do with your individual experience. But being aware of them, and being able to either in the moment recognize and say, oh, you know what, I’m having–like, I’m feeling in my chest that it’s tightening; I’m feeling in my throat that it’s tightening; I’m having a strong reaction to what’s being said. This is a clue to me to pause. To take some deep breaths. To say to the other person, you know what, I think I need to hit pause. I’m realizing that I’m having a really strong reaction to this, and I want to give this conversation the attention and space it deserves, and I’m just having trouble hearing–can we come back to this, right?
RS: So let’s apply that right now. My intent–Robert Scheer, podcaster, journalist–is not to provoke you, OK. It is to engage you, however. And I would say this if I were talking to Ronald Regan or anybody I’ve interviewed. I actually try to be honest with people as a journalist; I try to tell them where I’m coming from. So let me tell you where I’m coming from, OK? You with me?
XV: Sure! Yeah.
RS: And again, I’m not interested in provoking, because then people will write me emails saying, You didn’t let her talk! And I do want you to talk. I look at your field, this field, user experience, and I think of so much of our conversation about self-help, about improvement–the whole field of public relations. The whole field of, whatever you call it, self-improvement and all that. At the bottom of it, what drives it is this profit motive, is this economic system that we live in, OK. If we were in a more overtly totalitarian society we would talk about, you know, in China maybe the Communist Party or something.
But here in our system–and Silicon Valley, of course, is the most incredible, powerful embodiment of what documentarian Adam Curtis has called “the century of the self,” and the exploitation. Or a famous guy in your neighborhood, I think, was Buckminster Fuller, who said don’t confuse the thing being sold with the thing itself. And so right now, when we talk about the user experience–and you’re talking about Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter and all of these companies that dominate Silicon Valley–their intention is really to make money. To exploit you. It is not to leave you a whole human being, or fuller, or more democratic, ultimately. Isn’t that true? The listening on the part of these corporations is not to confuse the thing itself with the thing being sold, but to sell you something. Is that not correct?
XV: I would say that every business is trying to stay in business by selling something.
RS: Well, not just stay. To make these enormous profits. I mean, you are–and I’m not holding you accountable, and I’ve done my share of writing about Silicon Valley and being around. But the fact of the matter is, we’re at the center of this enormous concentration of wealth, worldwide. But right there where you’re operating, and these companies there, they’re at the center of it. And that’s one reason why the housing market has gone berserk; these people can afford to live a life that 99% of the world can’t live, most of them.
And so I’m asking you, really–user experience–and I want to relate it to one very big issue. We have about eight minutes left, or 10 minutes. I want to relate it to the whole question, which is really on everyone’s mind after we get through the pandemic, but really about climate change. And what is happening, is the world threatened, and we have these companies–and yet, you know, at the same moment, most of the user experience is to try to figure out, to get people to buy more stuff. To be unhappy with what they have, and happier with the next thing, right? Isn’t that really what so much of what Silicon Valley does, in its research into people’s thinking, in the focus groups and what have you, is really about increasing the use of the world’s resources rather than decreasing it, even though they say yes, we’re for recycling? Aren’t you involved in basically an industry of waste?
XV: I would disagree with that. I mean, I think that it absolutely depends on what product you’re producing, is part of that. But you know, I think I would push back on the idea that as a user researcher our focus is really on getting you to buy more stuff. So for example, when I worked at Pinterest, one of the things that–and you can read about this–but one of the things that is important to a company like Pinterest is that you are offline. So a lot of what they’re known for are things like cooking, recipes. That’s not to get you to spend more time on the app; that is to help you put a meal on the table that you like and that you feel good about. Which is a pretty basic, core part of being a human, right? It’s eating!
So I would push back on the idea that everything is about purchasing more. Absolutely, are there products–Amazon’s a great example–who are, yes, that is what they are doing; they are working very hard to get you to buy more. That’s what Prime is about, that’s what the Whole Foods acquisition is about, that’s what having free shipping involved, you know, and one-day turnaround is about. One hundred percent, no arguments there. But I would take a finer look at the tech ecosystem as a whole, because I don’t think that it’s universally the case that every company in Silicon Valley is really driving toward “please buy more and contribute to climate change” in this way.
RS: So now I’m going to follow the advice of your book, OK? Which I’ve read. And so I’m going to step back. And I’m going to try to be objective, right? And what you just said makes sense. First of all, let me just stipulate I think most of the people that I’ve met who work in Silicon Valley have some kind of social conscience. They’re not stupid; they know if the planet is unlivable that that’s going to affect at least future generations; they know we have a lot of problems to solve. Apple talks certainly a very good game about renewal and so forth.
But the fact of the matter is, my seven-year-old grandchild has just dropped an old machine that I gave him, a MacBook Pro, and now we’re going to go to the Apple Store later today and they’re probably going to tell me it can’t be fixed, and besides I’m past the time when they would be responsible for it, and I have to buy a new one. And he’s going to tell me, well, I want one like these other kids have, that has this kind of memory and has this kind of graphic, and does this kind of stuff. That’s the pressure from this industry–whatever they say in conferences or what have you, Apple comes out with, what, in the middle of a pandemic–thankfully because they have, they can exploit Chinese workers and the Chinese government has managed to get control of this pandemic more effectively than our government, they have a whole new line. And you know, they don’t even wait for once a year; now it’s like every few months, they’re going to make this seven-year-old or every other seven-year-old want more.
And isn’t that just–so I’m listening to you. But a part of me, even when I reflect, says no; this is actually a way of glossing off the real problems of listening. That the most effect is the megaphone. The megaphone is in the hands of people who want to con you. And they have the levers, they have the megaphone. And this very well-intentioned writer is telling me, well, but in one-on-one–but our one-on-one conversations are blindsided by the profit motive of these large corporations that control the megaphone. Is that not true?
XV: I would say that–I guess first I’ll say, I hear where you’re coming from, and I understand that dilemma, particularly from a product consumption standpoint. Again, I would say that this is–the examples that you’re giving are specific to a subset of companies that are creating things, right? Like physical products, as opposed to software exclusively. So that’s one distinction that I would make in terms of, you know, the hand that these companies have in having this impact that you’re talking about.
The other thing I would say is, like, OK, let’s say that I say yes, you’re right–all of this is, you know, Silicon Valley’s a mess, it’s contributing to climate change, it’s creating this culture of consumption, you know; that’s really bad for us, and it’s all kind of wound up in this capitalist structure; it’s bad, right? Like, that’s a scary picture, and let’s say I’m willing to go there and I say, like, yeah, you’re right. Well, then I would say, now what? And I think that’s really what I’m trying to, part of what I’m trying to do with the book, is to say, like, no matter what your situation is, no matter what your circumstances are, you as an individual have a need to be heard, right? And so do the other people in your lives, whether that’s a capitalist society or not.
And so my sort of corner of the universe that I think I can help impact in a positive way, in people’s everyday lives, is to help them build stronger relationships with the people in their lives, whether those are in a work setting or in a personal setting, and to open conversations in a way that they can also be heard. So whatever you kind of think the backdrop is, whether that’s a, you know, capitalism-is-eroding-our-society kind of backdrop, or it’s-complicated-yes-and-no kind of backdrop, I think what I’m trying to do with the book is to create the space for people to connect with each other on a small scale. And I recognize, yeah, it’s not necessarily a large scale–like, I’m not grabbing a megaphone for this. But I do think it’s important that we have agency in our everyday lives and conversations. And if this is something that–and I believe it can–if it can really impact our relationships, it will have been work worth doing.
RS: Well, and I agree with your message, by the way. And I found your book very useful. The book, by the way, Listen Like You Mean It, Ximena Vengoechea. [You] can find it on Amazon as well as independent bookstores. And I do think it’s an important book. By the way, let me cut to the chase here. I wanted to do this interview because my producer son, Joshua Scheer, said it’s a different point of view and you’re getting narrow-tracked here, so I, OK, I read it. And I found it very useful. And it made me long–long for a time when we listened better. And I do think there are important lessons in this book about the importance of listening. As I said, when I teach journalism, I say the most important thing is you tell a kid, put your listening ears on. And your book tells you a lot about putting your listening ears on.
But then I thought–and I would be remiss if I didn’t point this out–that that’s not going to solve the whole problem. That just makes us long for a time where we listened better, whether it was over a cup of coffee, or whether it was walking with a friend, or just having Friday night pasta dinners or what have you, and the family, where we listened. And where technology was not always an intrusion. Now, the great hope of technology was that it would expand the conversation. And I must say, during the pandemic–and here I’ll say even with Zoom and so forth–it helped keep the conversation going. Technology is the best, and this new technology revolution is the best and worst of all worlds. And the best part of it is you can have conversations, and you can listen. So for instance as a teacher, I found there was a good aspect to the classroom through Zoom, where one-on-one, if a kid in a class of 100 people spoke, suddenly they were front and center, and you could listen.
And I think the lessons in this book, Listen Like You Mean It, apply to teachers, parents, husbands and wives, everyone else. It’s an important corrective. I don’t want to lose that. However, the worst of the internet–and it’s not just the product-makers; actually, Apple is in some ways better than the others. But let’s take the non-product-makers, Google and Facebook for instance, and Twitter and so forth. They may not make products, but they’re in the business of making profit off products. And advertising is the essence of what they’re about. And so I want to conclude this really talking about the advertising PR culture as something that creates static, social static, that gets in the way of conversation. And that’s even one-on-one with a grandchild, because that grandchild is not just listening to you, that grandchild is listening to this blather that they’ve been getting on the internet and YouTube and everywhere else.
So let’s just conclude by–because we’ve both put our thinking caps on, OK, as well as our listening ears. And you strike me, from your book and this conversation, as a very intelligent observer of Silicon Valley. And I think your message of this book will not take off, it will not be a bestseller; hopefully I’m wrong. And I think it won’t because it’s a quiet book that actually says: Listen. Think. That’s not what people want from self-help. They want a magic ticket to success: read this book, you’re going to be a hot-shot at Google or Facebook, and you’re going to rise to the top. Your tone, the tone of your book, is quite opposite. You’re basically saying, we lose something when we don’t pause, think, contemplate. That’s not a message that Silicon Valley wants to hear.
XV: Yeah, it may not be. I think Silicon Valley is very much in the spirit of “move fast and break things.” And I don’t think you can listen quickly. If you’re listening quickly, you’re not listening well. It is a slow process; it is a deliberate process. It requires self-reflection, self-awareness, self-understanding. And so, you know, I feel very comfortable with that approach. It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that you could “listen fast and break things.”
RS: Well, which was of course the slogan of Google. Let me end with that. I do want to recommend this book, because it’s a book that encourages contemplation. It’s a book that reminds us of these innate senses that we have of thinking and smelling and listening, and savoring–savoring such things. And really your advice is how to savor conversation, how to respect the person that you’re listening to. I hope it’s going to make me a better podcaster. I intend to refer to it. The book, again, is Listen Like You Mean It. The author has a name that I’m not being intentionally dismissive of Basque culture, but Ximena Vengoechea [spells out name]. It’s worth reading. And I do respect the sensibility that you bring to it; I do think listening is a lost form, and we should regret that.
Now, let me just thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, the public radio station in Santa Monica, for posting these shows. I guess this is now our 251st show, which is good, our weekly show. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. And particularly the JWK Foundation in memory of a terrific writer, Jean Stein, for helping with the funding. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.