Ximena Vengoechea: “Technology Is a Brilliant Communication Tool, But It Will Never Be a Replacement for Real, True Human Connection.”

Ximena Vengoechea: “Technology Is a Brilliant Communication Tool, But It Will Never Be a Replacement for Real, True Human Connection.”

Interview: Ximena Vengoechea.

Ximena Vengoechea is a user researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in many publications; she's a contributor at Fast Company and The Muse; and she writes Letters from Ximena, a newsletter on tech, culture, career, and creativity. She's best known for her project The Life Audit. She's worked at Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Now she has a new book: Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection (Amazon, Bookshop). It's a guide to becoming a better listener and draws from Ximena's expertise as a user researcher and manager in Silicon Valley.

I couldn't wait to talk to Ximena about happiness, communication, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Ximena: I find a walk outside does wonders for my well-being and creativity. If I am stuck on a problem, taking a break to stretch my legs gives my brain a break, too. Sometimes I will call a friend or family member to catch up during this time, and other times I’ll walk in silence — it depends on whether I’m looking to ground myself and clear my mind or if I am seeking energy through conversation with others. For me, this habit works well whether I’m in nature or an urban setting — simply changing locations from wherever I am working and taking in my surroundings helps. Usually, I am able to make progress on whatever challenge I’m thinking through after a walk. Walks have been especially sanity-making during the pandemic.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That a good conversation can vastly improve my happiness. At that age, you hear a lot about the “big things” that impact your happiness, like finding a career you’re passionate about and falling in love. Of course, those help. But the micro moments matter just as much. A good conversation with a friend or loved one can lift me up when I am down and supercharge me when things are going well. These kinds of conversations can be deep, intimate, inspiring, supportive, encouraging, motivating, or even funny, depending on the person and the topic. I can find great joy in solitude, too, but knowing the pleasure of a quality conversation is priceless. Realizing how much a simple conversation contributes to my happiness is a large part of what drew me (perhaps subconsciously) to become a user researcher, a job that entails interviewing strangers in order to understand their needs, motivations, and selves more deeply, and eventually write a book about how to be a better listener. 

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

My book, Listen Like You Mean It, explores how we can become better listeners — whether that’s in the workplace, at home, with friends, or even among strangers — and build stronger relationships as a result. It often feels like good conversations happen by chance, but conversations are less random than they appear — in every conversation there is a need waiting to be deciphered. As a UX researcher, the idea that hidden needs are everywhere is a common one — it’s just that we tend to uncover those needs in the context of a product, and how we can ensure it works for users. But it’s just as true that hidden needs exist in every conversation: We might want to be supported and validated, or simply seen and understood. We might want a sounding board to help resolve a tricky problem, or encouragement that our ideas are worth pursuing. If you can uncover what someone’s need is in conversation (and also learn to express your own) you can better empathize with them as a result, and meet them where they are. When that need comes to the surface — and we help to meet it — we tend to have much more satisfying and deeper conversations. These moments make up our more memorable conversations, where we feel we are getting somewhere together with our conversation partner.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

A few years ago I set out to develop one habit each month, for a year. I focused on one habit at a time to keep things manageable, and I gave myself a month to establish a steady routine. Of the habits I worked to foster, the ones I most successfully cultivated were those I was self-motivated to pursue— like waking up early (I am a natural early bird, but had somehow forgotten that), and developing a daily writing practice (which I still do years later)— rather than those I thought I should develop (like meditating). For me, consistency has also been key — focusing on something I can reinforce day after day helps accelerate that habit formation and sustain it over time. Also, being kind to myself and practicing self-compassion when a habit is difficult to maintain or achieve. Some habits are harder to develop than others, but judging myself for my failures isn’t helpful motivation — it’s just discouraging. With each habit I work on, I try to find joy in it, practice it daily, and celebrate my progress (no matter how small) to keep me going.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? 

I’m an Upholder, for sure. I’ve always been self-motivated and disciplined, which is how I’ve been able to generate and maintain so many side projects over the years in addition to my day job — like writing a book while working my 9-5, dabbling in audio storytelling, and taking care of a newborn. The downside is that there is always something else I want to do that I am ready and willing to put work into, which can make it hard to rest. I suppose I need to learn to apply more of that discipline to taking naps!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

The pandemic has been difficult for so many reasons. For me, one of the hardest changes to manage has been the lack of in-person contact and conversation. Knowing how much a deep one-on-one conversation can lift me up, pre-pandemic, I intentionally scheduled a regular mood-boosting conversation or friend catch-up each week. Now, of course, that’s no longer possible or so straightforward — what was once a simple in-person ritual is now ridden with negotiations, compromises and what-if tradeoffs and calculations. Going virtual hasn’t helped much either, at least not for that deep one-on-one — no amount of Zoom calls can ever replace the warmth and affection of being in person. I’ve turned to the humble phone call instead — I find it to be much warmer than trying to connect over a video call, and it allows both parties to be mobile (great for fitting in my mood-boosting walks), so we each get to take in our surroundings (or, you know, run an errand or two) while still connecting with a friend. As a bonus, there’s no awkward image freezing or audio lags, and no need to compete with our own reflections (since most of us are often guilty of checking ourselves out on a video call, leaving authentic eye contact hard to come by). 

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I think even things that look like lightning bolts were a long time coming for me. For example, there have been numerous times in my life where I’ve picked up and moved cities without a job (Boston > Paris, Paris > NYC, NYC > SF, all in the last 12 years), sometimes without knowing the language, or having any connections in the field, following a hunch that something compelling was out there for me. From the outside, these moves seemed very sudden, almost impulsive, and improbably successful. But they were actually the result of ideas percolating and marinating for some time — even if I wasn’t explicitly engaging with them — which is what made them exactly the right move for me.

In my book I talk about using your "informed intuition" in conversation to understand your conversation partner, which is really just a way of saying that we are picking up on cues from each other all the time, logging away "data" even if we aren't aware of it. We get to know someone — their tics, their habits, their pressure points — and can better read their reactions. We also understand that certain situations come with particular norms, allowing us to make meaning of a variety of moments (like knowing how to interpret someone’s behavior in the context of a job interview versus a dinner party).  A lot of it is information that builds over time, so that we can call upon our intuition in the moment. Similarly, though my lightning bolt moments may look random, sudden, or even purely intuitive, they're actually informed over time — they are decisions based on a mix of knowledge, experience, personality, and gut feeling— the result of thoughtful consideration (sometimes subconscious) over time. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

There’s an oft-cited Maya Angelou quote (also attributed to Carl Buehner) that says, “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It reminds me that so much of emotional connection comes through in ways far beyond what we see or do at the surface— in what is unsaid, and in how we listen. Every conversation is a chance for that feeling and emotional connection to come through if we can do our part as empathetic listeners. 

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

I would have been 8 or so when Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (Amazon, Bookshop) found its way into my hands. The title is based on the saying “Don't judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins," a message that appears in various forms throughout the book. It instilled in me at an early age the idea that there is always more to someone's experience than meets the eye — that we never know what someone else is experiencing at a given moment — and the importance of practicing empathy in understanding others. It’s been decades since I read it, but the book’s message has stuck with me. In a way, my book and my work on listening is a way to get closer to understanding others’ experiences and empathizing with them. [Gretchen: I also love this book, and just re-read it recently.]

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

There’s a common misconception that because we are connected all the time — through social media, email, mobile apps, and the like — we are connecting. But true connection comes from doing the hard work of putting down our phones and other competing priorities to be present, open, curious, and empathetic in conversations with others. Technology is a brilliant communication tool, but it will never be a replacement for real, true human connection. 

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