How often do you get a chance to listen?

This post is part of a human-centered design (HCD) theme for February. Students reflect on their experiences within the HCD class and how the acquired skills have impacted their lives. Two other articles related to this theme that you can check out are this one from Forbes by the president of Harvey Mudd College, and this one from The Student Life (TSL) by Becky Hoving.

By DD Maoz

If you stop by the Hive’s Studio 1 on Fridays, around 10 am, you will find a group of keen students taking the Human-Centered Design course. You’ll most likely see us hopping on one foot, or stretching on the floor, as part of a “stoke” activity meant to warm us up and help us connect with the topic of that day’s “lab” session (read: “doing” session). In the last Friday of January, however, you would have seen us filing out of the Hive, making our way across Seventh Street toward Pilgrim Place, a senior community for those who have devoted their lives to pursuing social impact and social justice in different ways.

We were walking to Pilgrim Place so we could interview 11 of their residents and gain more experience with the first stage of the human-centered design process: Empathize. This stage is made up of observation, immersion, and engaging. Engaging, we learned some days before, means actually talking to people. It means that problem-solving should be led by an encounter with another human being rather than led by unchecked assumptions and our own misconceptions. We were walking in the pairs we were assigned (a scene that resembled elementary school field trips, when teachers assign pairs so as to make sure no student gets lost), talking to each other excitedly about our interview “discussion guides.” “It’s a conversation, not an investigation,” Fred Leichter, our professor and the Hive director, pointed out.  

Once we, an excited group of college students, entered the gates of Pilgrim Place, residents we passed would greet us hello, or wave from afar. We walked into the Napier Activity Center, and David Mann, Vice Chair of the Napier Initiative Council at Pilgrim Place, told us all about the Napier initiative, a memorial fund in honor of Joy and Davie Napier, which funds Napier fellowships and programs aimed to “encourage leadership for social change.” It’s a wonderful program that you really should read more about here (  

“Maybe,” one Pilgrim Place resident suggested, “we should pull from the Napier fund to buy one of your students a new pair of jeans.” He was pointing at the student to his left who was wearing a pair of ripped jeans. Everyone roared with genuine laughter. (I was reminded of my grandpa asking me, when he saw my own pair of ripped jeans, “You mean to tell me you paid for this?”) With that laughter came a great sense of ease; people exchanged warm-hearted smiles that lingered as pairs of students sat down with a Pilgrim Place resident, beginning to ask them about their lives.  

I was excited, and looking around the room, it was clear I wasn’t the only one. We all get to engage with incredible people every day – whether we recognize this or not – but it’s not often that we get to devote ourselves to listening. It’s not often that we’re permitted to ask questions; that our profound curiosity about another human being is encouraged and given a proper outlet. The other side of this, as our interviewee expressed, is that it is not often that you get to be listened to with such intent; that you get to tell your story to a willing audience; that you get to reflect on your own path. Encountering our interviewee in such a way felt incredibly meaningful.  

It was meaningful because it gave us a chance to ask, “why?” It was clear that our interviewee had a clear conviction for what was right. She used words that resonated with me, proclaiming the importance of process, of recognizing one’s work is never done. In an interview setting, instead of agreeing wholeheartedly and moving on to share my own experiences in relation to what she was describing, I got to ask her, “Why is it so clear to you?” This did two things. It prevented us from assuming we know what our interviewee actually meant. Having to ask “why” meant that we needed to interrogate our own assumptions about what a specific word meant and give room for the difference in experience words sometimes fool us into glossing over. And in that, it prompted our interviewee to have to articulate things she, too, assumed were too obvious to explore. She later reflected that having to explain what seemed self-evident prompted her to delve into her path and contemplate her values, in ways she never had to before.  

When we got together as a class the next Tuesday, our pairs got together to form groups of four to arrive at the next stage of the human-centered design process: Define. We had to put our listening to good use, and make an empathy map indicating what our interviewees had said and done, and gather what we think they might have thought and felt. Our discussion of how our interviewees felt came as naturally as what they had said. We reflected on the fact that perhaps there comes a stage in one’s life when what you say and what you feel don’t seem at all disconnected; a stage when what you feel is also what you articulate to those around you. We guessed how different this chart would be if we had interviewed fellow young people – how far the words would be from feelings, how hearts would not be worn on sleeves, but perhaps hidden behind the need to keep face.  

In the Claremont Colleges, it’s not often that we’re pushed to truly listen, and it’s not often that we get to have these profound conversations with people who are not our peers or close friends. As groups of us made our way back to the colleges, it was clear that we were feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. One person in the class even mentioned that this was the best part of her semester so far. It’s shocking, yet incredibly intuitive, how much an intentional engagement with another human being can impact us. The most important lesson, then, that I feel I gained from this visit is the reminder and the imperative to bring these reflections into being in my day-to-day conversations; be intentional, be open, give room for reflection, ask why and listen.  

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