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Cure what ails you with active listening

How to use Constructivist Listening Dyads in design.

Karmen Kaufmann August 15, 2017

A while back I was at happy hour with a friend who used to be a teacher. During our conversation, she told me about an exercise she was introduced to by her former school called the Constructivist Listening Dyad.

The more she told me about it, the more I thought it would be a useful tool in some of our work at Moment. I immediately typed out a few notes for myself as a reminder. Inadvertently, these few lines are a pretty good distillation of the steps in performing a Constructivist Listening Dyad.

Screenshot of the note I wrote to myself.

Weeks later, when planning for a couple days of generative research for a project with a large consumer bank, something clicked and I was reminded of the conversation with my teacher friend. I referenced the note saved in my phone as my team brainstormed ways to involve stakeholders in what we had planned for our research sessions.

After giving it some thought and doing a little more of my own research, I figured the exercise could work well as a tool to build empathy with stakeholders. My team decided to begin our work differently than we normally would. This time around we would use our version of a Constructivist Listening Dyad as an activity for our project kickoff. The exercise turned our stakeholders into research participants and interviewers and gave us a head start on our generative research, but it also did something else—it brought everyone closer together.

How it works

Team members are paired up and agree to the following statement for the remainder of the exercise:

“I agree to listen to you and think about you for two minutes in exchange for you doing the same for me. I keep in my mind that my listening is for your benefit, so I do not ask questions for my information.”

They also agree to three simple guidelines:

1. Each person is given equal time to talk and should use their entire time to talk.
2. The listener does not interpret, paraphrase, analyze, give advice, or break in with a personal story.
3. The listener does not take notes.

A facilitator sets a timer for two minutes and gives the group an open ended prompt. Following our research plan for this project, our first prompt was: “Tell me about a strong connection you have with a person. Who is it with? Why does it matter to you? Why is it strong? What do you get out of the relationship? What do you put into the relationship?”

After each person has their two minutes to talk, the facilitator passes out a worksheet for the listener to fill out the details about what their partner discussed. “Who/what is the relationship with? Why does it matter to them? Why is it strong? What do they get out of it? What do they put into it? Why do you think it’s interesting or inspiring?”

The facilitator invites team members to share with the group what they learned about their partner, especially highlighting why they think it’s interesting or inspiring.

What we got out of it

Empathy for our research participants (and inspiration for the project)

The prompts we asked our stakeholders to answer during these dyads were pulled directly from our discussion guide, giving everyone first-hand experience around what it’s like to answer the types of questions we’d be asking our “real” research participants. By sharing these relationships and experiences with each other, everyone recognized the possibility for inspiring insights that could come out of these research sessions.

Everyone gained skills in active listening

Once we were required as listeners not to interpret, paraphrase, analyze, give advice, or interrupt in any way, we realized that many of our daily conversations are driven by selfishness. Upon reflection, everyone noted that this focus on listening was quite unique—listening is rarely the focus of a typical conversation between two people. Instead, we spend our time listening by formulating our own thoughts and preparing for our next chance to speak. By forcing ourselves to remain silent, we learned that active listening has a way of empowering ourselves and those we interact with.

We learned important things about each other we wouldn’t normally share with our colleagues

Our team shared a range of meaningful relationships in our first dyad, everything from the relationships with their children and best friends to their favorite football team and Google Calendar. Sharing so candidly gave everyone a deeper insight into how each other became the person we are now, what drives us, and what holds us back.

The stories we heard during this quick exercise inspired much of the work we did over the next nine weeks, laying the foundation for a team willing to listen, share, and open up to each other in new ways.

It’s important to note that we made some adaptations for our use of the Constructivist Listening Dyad. This exercise was originally designed for The National Coalition for Equity in Education by Victor Cary to be used with educators to create open working environments by encouraging a “safe space to become better at listening and talking in depth.” If you’re looking for an example of a Dyad in its pure form, you can find one on Edutopia. I hope this inspires you to try a Constructivist Listening Dyad, either in its pure form or our adaptation as a tool for empathy building for research.


Karmen Kaufmann

Lead Designer