Simple emotion to create a space to listen

Alastair Somerville
3 min readFeb 11, 2023
Diagram of speech bubbles- outer one is bounded by answers like yes/no or something good/bad. Inner one is titled The space for conversation

I was running a walking workshop last week in Germany. I noticed that my opening user research questions are very basic. I do not speak German so I was aware of this because of I needed to simplify my language for translation.

I do not view scripted user research question sets as helpful. Like A/B Testing, they create clear datasets but not always useful meaning. The hard tramlines of question and answer can be a trap (another tram problem but not the famous one).

Open questions and the funnel effect are useful. Yet they can have a sense of direction that may avoid personal truths and discovery.

I start with simple direct questions.

They are also questions that are about emotions.

The questions are:

  • How does it feel (here)?
  • Tell me a story of something good or bad that happened (here)?

(The bracketed ‘here’ is because I often research physical spaces rather than digital products or services.)

The questions create a space for conversation, a place for listening.

Hold a place

Two mugs on a table, full of tea, with workshop content on them — hold a place, pause, check your self

I run active listening workshops for companies and conferences. There is one in Manchester for CampDigital.

The first point is that listening needs a space. This is the primary action that anyone can make. To hold a place in a space (a sofa, a coffee shop table, whatever is possible and appropriate). In a time (sometimes it may take a few attemptes to find a time that works. The person may lack trust or time for this opening moment of a process). It is the offer to be heard.

What this ‘Hold a place’ framework does not quite show is that the space needs emotional boundaries for it to have meaning. This goes to an important idea:-

The measure of meaning is emotion. From good to bad and from love to hate, the meaning space bounded by human feeling. Too often, this space collapses into a few emojis (happy face and angry face). Emotion is an error state full of irrational sentiments. Yet, it is this emotional space that is most important for deeper conversation and meaning making. The vastness within us accessed and explored thru emotion. Humans valorise experiences thru emotions. That is why we need to ask about emotions and visceral feelings.

Emotions create the boundaries for a place to listen. Opening with emotional questions creates a space for conversation.

Once the space exists then all the other interview techniques apply.

But you need to make the space, deliberately with emotion.

Originally published at on February 11, 2023.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX