As a practicing clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the world of marketing research, I’ve come to realize that I listen differently from most consumer insights researchers. As a therapist, I listen on several levels at once and monitor my own thoughts, feelings, and memories. I observe body language, both that of the speaker and my own. I follow my free-associations to words and images and what I am feeling and daydreaming about as I listen becomes part of the data I analyze and interpret. I listen to my own inner chatter and use it to formulate strategic hypotheses as the interview continues.
The chatter might consist of snippets of songs, phrases, and childhood memories in a flashing image. Yet while I attend to the chatter, I also know that to really listen to another person I have to suspend my own self-interests. I have to open my heart as well as my ears to the uniqueness of the human being I am trying to connect with empathically. Deep empathic listening is a full body experience! It is not a passive activity. We have to deliberately and patiently suppress our own judgments and reactions. As we listen empathically we begin to comprehend the underlying motivations, the internal emotional conflicts, the surrounding relationships, the cultural context and the individual’s personal history.
We listen for what is said, but also what is not said but which begins to be very loud in its silence. We begin to hear more deeply and more broadly, beyond just the spoken words of the individual. We listen for all the stories… the common themes, yes, but also for the story that reveals the individual’s “narrative identity.” We all conceive of who we are through the construction of compelling and coherent personal narratives and our own mythologies. With active, empathic listening we accept the responsibility of taking on the speaker’s need to be heard and understood, especially the need to have one’s identity affirmed. People can feel how they are listened to and, when they feel understood, they reveal more of what is most true for them and closest to their hearts.
Why is this important in marketing? Brands must be good listeners if they are to convincingly play a key role in helping people express who they are. Feeling understood is a vital human experience and is profoundly emotionally satisfying. When we feel a brand “gets us” and can help us tell the world who we are, our narrative identity is bolstered and we are grateful. We incorporate that brand into our lives and we talk about it like it is a member of our inner circle. Indeed we have a personal relationship with it.
Remember, a good listener makes you feel understood and invites you to say more. A good brand helps you say it.