Make Sense of What You Heard

Pick Out the Concepts Each Participant Describes

Make Sense of Each Concept

What to Skip in the Transcript

Your Goal Is to Get Better

Write a Summary of Each Concept

Start with the Verb

Write the Rest of the Summary

Edit Until It’s Clean and Clear


Listening deeply to a person allows you to develop an understanding of his reasoning and reactions—it allows you to develop empathy. The more you practice listening, the more you will notice what is being said. But perfect understanding during listening is impossible. To deepen your understanding—and consequently recognize where you could have done better in the listening session—there is another powerful technique to employ. Study what the person said.

The word “study” is meant to indicate spending time with the other person’s thoughts. It’s more than just a review, which admittedly often gets accomplished with only half your attention. It’s reflection. You can undertake this study time in any way you like. Spending time is the best way to let the meaning and nuances soak in. Time lets you consider alternate interpretations of what was said. As is true for so many aspects of your life, giving yourself time to digest experiences and ideas always repays with a deeper perspective.

However, time is an expensive commodity within an organization. You’ve got to justify it. In this case, the justification is that you are sure to misinterpret statements and miss concepts if you don’t study what was said. Even though it seems clear when you first hear it, even though you’ve got years of experience, it’s guaranteed that you will misconstrue meanings. You don’t want to end up working with incorrect understandings, so spend at least 10 minutes per person going over what was said.

Remember that this stage is still a part of developing empathy. Developing empathy is listening and identifying what flows past in the conversation, but purposely not synthesizing or analyzing it yet. You can’t absorb how another person thinks when your own mind is active. So save the analysis for later. Allow yourself a bit of time, first to listen and then to make sense. After you do these two stages to develop empathy, then you can engage the analytical part of your brain (see Figure 5.1).


Writing summaries is one way of “studying” what was said. When writing summaries, stay focused on one person at a time. Don’t make interpretations, deductions, or comparisons yet.

Pick Out the Concepts Each Participant Describes

You can study what was said in a variety of ways. Pick one that suits you and your circumstances.

You can study a session by discussing it with someone else at work, reviewing it in your head, or by jotting down what you remember. If you want even stronger comprehension of what was said, spend an hour listening to the recording again. Or get a transcript made of the session and read it.

You can go one step further. Gather each concept in the transcript that contributes to developing empathy: the reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. This activity involves corralling messy, meandering dialogue. You will pick certain quotes, put them with other parts of this person’s dialogue, and forge a complete idea of what the person really meant to convey. This time you spend dwelling on transcripts counts as time spent with the person. The more time you spend with him, even in review, the more you absorb his thoughts, reactions, and philosophies. You develop deeper empathy. It’s almost magical how much better you will understand someone this way.

If you choose to, you can execute this quote-collection exercise however you would like. Some people make circles on printed transcripts and connect them together with lines. Some people highlight quotes in different colors to show what goes together (see Figure 5.2). Others make a spreadsheet and copy little quotes into different rows, and then combine related quotes into one row to represent one concept (see Figure 5.3). Some people even copy the quotes onto sticky notes, adding notes in the margins as more related sentences show up in the transcript. It’s important to use a method that suits you, or you’ll give up before reaping the benefits.


One of the many ways to gather quotes together, this example shows related concepts being collected using different font colors in the transcript. Using colors won’t work for everyone, though.


As another option to gather quotes, here are the same concepts from the transcript grouped together and tagged with an identification number so this speaker’s name remains private. Colors are optional here.


If you are pulling quotes out and putting them in a document or spreadsheet, you’ll want to tag the quote with the speaker who said it. This way, if you don’t understand the context of a quote, you can go back to the source transcript. To preserve privacy and prevent demographic preconceptions from influencing you later, try using an identification number instead of the speaker’s name.

Sometimes you can’t do the review until days after the listening session. That’s not a problem; you can do the review as much as a year later. It doesn’t matter, as long as the listening session was conducted reasonably well and the transcript (or written conversation) is clear and includes some indication of the emotional tone of the speaker (or writer), for example, sarcasm.

Make Sense of Each Concept

What you are essentially doing with the transcript is taking out all the superfluous words. This exercise helps you discover the different kernels of what the speaker meant to convey. It’s a tiny bit similar to what the author and poet Austin Kleon does. He takes a newspaper story and blacks out all the words except those that he feels are vital, and he makes a poem out of them. You’re doing something similar with the quotes. You’re blacking out all the extra words (see Figure 5.4), as the speaker tried to explain his thoughts, until you get down to the true meaning of each concept he was trying to express.

How granular should each discrete concept be? You want each one to represent a single guiding principle, a single reaction, or a single part of the thinking process. Make each concept, whether it’s made up of one quote or strung together from several places in the transcript, represent a unique idea. It could be that the speaker is talking about an idea, but that idea is spread across many paragraphs in the transcript. It’s just one idea. As the story continues, it wanders. The speaker is thinking aloud, and sometimes changes topics mid-sentence when he thinks of something related. Or he may even change his mind mid-sentence. Collect all the little bits into one pile. Or just collect one or two representative quotes and ignore the rest of the repeats.


One of Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems from his blog at, September 2, 2013. (Reprinted with permission.)

Here’s where you can measure how well you are doing in the listening sessions. When you listen to someone telling a story, you fill in a lot of details that go unsaid. These “fillers” are based on your cultural and personal history—and probably half the time they’re wrong. In the listening session, it’s hard to notice these places where you’ve filled in your own meaning. Simple things are usually the culprits. Someone says, “I hold weekly team meetings,” and you think you know what’s going on. Instead, you’re filling in meaning based on your own experiences of weekly meetings. Try to notice these fillers in the transcript and, in your next listening session, prod yourself to ask the speaker his reasoning. “Why the meetings?”

What to Skip in the Transcript

You’re not going to be using every word from the transcript. There is some stuff that gets said by way of setting a scene, or as a way of figuring out how to explain something, that you can skip. There might even be whole swaths of the conversation where the speaker was generalizing or citing opinions that you can go past, so you can get to the deeper part that helps develop your empathy. There will be quotes that look tantalizingly meaningful, but when you grab them, their relevance melts away. Instead of tearing your hair out trying to conceptualize their significance, you can largely ignore certain things. None of these items in the following list directly helps you develop empathy. It’s what lies beneath these things that you want to move on to.

• Explanation of event, process, or scene

• Statement of fact

• Opinion

• Preference

• Generalization

• Passive behavior

• Conjecture

• Concepts that are out of scope

Explanation of Event, Process, or Scene

Descriptions of what was happening, where someone was, and how something works tend to come at the beginning of a story—although not always. These descriptions are necessary. A speaker can’t leave them out, or you won’t understand what is going on. But neither the scene nor the process being explained will help you develop empathy. You can skip over these parts of the transcript. Of course, sometimes a bit of the scene-setting is useful to add to the collection of quotes for a concept, just for context, to help you understand the concept a few months from now.

Statement of Fact

Sometimes a speaker wants you to know certain facts. He might mention, for example, what he owns, how he gets to work, who he knows, where an event took place, or when he started working somewhere. Notice these examples include those five words you were taught at school to include in your writing: who, what, when, where, and how. It turns out these little facts serve as background to the action. Background facts, by themselves, do not help you develop empathy. Like explanations, they help the speaker set a scene for subsequent descriptions of reasoning, decision-making, and reactions.

So, when you are studying the transcript, you can skip the background facts and get straight to the deep stuff. The deep stuff represents the why. That’s the sixth word that goes with the who-what-when litany.


Opinions are the thin crust1 over a person’s deeper reasoning and guiding principles (see Figure 5.5). An opinion represents a view about a particular thing or condition that is based on a person’s guiding principle. Opinions are intrinsically tied to the context they are about. Guiding principles, by comparison, are not tied to one particular instance. For example, a speaker could say he thinks no one in drought-prone areas should have living grass lawns because they require so much irrigation. If you ask how he formed his opinion, you might hear statements of fact about how much water is needed to keep a lawn green, and then you’d eventually divine a guiding principle like, “natural resources are not infinite and therefore should not be wasted.” His guiding principle could apply to many situations: water, coal, oil.

Opinions often try to masquerade as emotional reactions or guiding principles. A person might use the English phrases “feel that” or “feel like.” These phrases trick you into thinking they herald emotions, because of the word “feel,” but they actually introduce opinions. Likewise, the English phrase “I believe” tricks you into thinking it reveals a belief, but it more frequently announces an opinion. There might be similar misdirecting phrases in other languages, so be on the lookout for them.

Incidentally, in cultures where people are shy about giving opinions, you’ll notice that the empathetic style of listening—where you never ask for an opinion—works wonderfully. A person from such a culture will feel much more comfortable in a conversation where opinion and preference never come up (see Figure 5.5).

You will run across places in a transcript where you did not recognize an opinion and did not dig into the background of why it had formed. It’s impossible to catch them all in the moment. Or maybe the opinion seemed unimportant at the time. Abstain from guessing about what principle is behind the opinion. Maybe you can go back to the speaker and ask about his reasoning, but if you can’t, you have to ignore that part of the transcript.


Opinions are the thin crust over a person’s deeper reasoning and guiding principles.

When you are developing empathy with customers, you or your team might be questioned about why you’re skipping over opinions. If this is the case, explain how the randomness of opinions, and the shades and nuances involved, usually result in no patterns across different people.


Nate Bolt was a design research manager at Facebook after it acquired the remote research company he founded, Bolt|Peters. He is a pioneer of “in the moment” evaluative research and currently runs his company, Ethnio. In a FastCompany interview, he said, “We try to ignore opinions ... even in the qualitative sessions. Because opinions are essentially worthless. They don’t repeat. Opinions require a huge sample size to find trends. But cognitive behavior repeats over a very small sample size. So we can reliably extract behavioral trends from a fairly small qualitative sample.”2


Like opinions, preferences are representations of deeper reasoning and behavior. If someone mentions a preference, you’ll want to keep reading the transcript to find out why that preference was developed. The reason might appear a few paragraphs later. Understanding the reasoning beneath a preference is what will help you develop empathy with this person.

There are some tricky words used with preferences where you can’t tell whether you should skip them or not. The words “hate,” “love,” and “like” might indicate an emotional reaction instead of a preference. Keep reading for context. Perhaps someone says, “I hate business trips,” and a few sentences on you find out he gets anxious and has had small panic attacks while flying. So you can skip the preference about business trips and focus on his emotional terror of flying and his reasoning about trying to cancel a particular business trip.

Furthermore, the word “hate” may come up as a complaint about something. “I hate it when ....” Whether it’s about your organization’s offering or about something else entirely, keep reading to find out what the person did about the situation.


Unfortunately, lots of people have a habit of speaking in generalities. Instead of describing a particular instance or moment of time, they describe all similar moments as one—the average sorts of moment. During the listening session, you might have had limited success convincing a speaker to tell you stories specific to one place and time, even though you asked clearly and provided examples. Some people just have a strong habit of speaking in a broad, vague, reductive manner.

With this kind of speaker, you may have actually had to end the session early. Peer through the transcript and see if you can spot some reasoning, an emotion, or a guiding principle. There might be a few places where you got something descriptive of the speaker’s thinking process. But, typically, with a transcript full of generalizations, you will only be able to collect a couple of quotes from it.

Passive Behavior

A passive behavior is when something happens to a person, not something a person does. Skip it because the speaker hasn’t done any thinking or reacting yet. Read on until you come across his reaction to this thing that happened. “I read the email about the last-minute change that Sam made” may seem like an action—reading—but it’s simply information being put into this speaker’s mind. It’s passive. It is the speaker’s reaction that you are interested in: “So I stormed down to Sam’s office and demanded an explanation. I was so angry at his lack of courtesy toward the team that had spent a week discussing what he had so blithely changed.” This latter description gets deeper into the speaker’s emotional reaction and reasoning.


When you ask someone to make guesses about future decisions or behavior, you are asking for conjecture. It’s speculation about how the speaker will react or what he will do, and why. And because it hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t count toward empathy. Even though it might contain reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles, it’s all just a guess. Skip it.

People might fall into talking about their future actions simply because they are aware that journalists, marketing surveys, and usability researchers often ask these questions. Again, hopefully, you recognized the conjecture during the listening session and coaxed the speaker back to stories of what he actually experienced. Usually, the key word that indicates conjecture is “would,” so it will be easy to spot in a transcript.

Concepts That Are Out of Scope

When you study the transcript, you have the advantage of knowing how pieces of the speaker’s story relate and how they compare with what other speakers said. You are better able to decide if a particular part matters to you or not. If several other people in other transcripts also talk about similar things, then it’s not actually out of scope. If it’s somewhat tied in to the emotional content of what was said, it is, likewise, in scope. Include these pieces in your quotes.

What’s “scope,” exactly? It is the subject of interest that you explored with the speaker. With someone who is a direct report to you in your organization, the scope might be the project he’s working on for you or the skills he’s improving. With a customer of an enterprise software suite, the scope might be how he decides which software to pursue and maintain, or how he keeps track of all the employees at his multinational organization. So, if part of the transcript dwells on the surprise of meeting coworkers at the day-care facility across town where he drops his kids off, that’s out of scope. But a decision to look up some work information because of a comment that a coworker made, no matter if it happened at the day-care facility or not, is in scope.

Your Goal Is to Get Better

Studying the transcript will also help you get better at the listening sessions—better at getting those rich descriptions into the transcript. You’ll be better able to recognize the three things that build empathy as people are saying them: reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles. You’ll also be able to see the places where you should have asked the speaker for more detail, instead of staying at the superficial level of statement of fact or opinion. A review helps you learn how to listen. This extension of your listening practice allows you to improve within weeks or months, instead of taking months or years.

Write a Summary of Each Concept

Now that you have a collection of quotes that represent non-repeating, discrete concepts, there is an additional step you can take. You can write a summary of each discrete concept. This exercise is optional, but it is powerful. Writing or crafting words engages a part of your brain that creates meaning and sense. It helps your mind reach an even deeper understanding.

Writing summaries serves three purposes:

• It provides you with a set of written artifacts representing your knowledge, which you can use in many parts of your work.

• It helps further clarify the ambiguity of what a person said. When you look at a quote representing a roundabout way of getting to a concept, it takes a few seconds to comprehend the meaning. If you can summarize that quote more clearly, then when you read it a month from now, you’ll understand it immediately.

• Systematize quotes across different people so you can compare them later. Done correctly, making summaries conform to a certain format will allow you to make comparisons and find patterns more quickly.

The written summaries can be used in several ways. You can consult the summaries before the next listening session with the same person, to remind yourself of previous concepts, and after the listening session, you can look at the summaries to gauge changes. You can track skills and development in the people you manage. You can observe what is of concern to your leaders over time.

For the process of creation, you can use memorable summaries in presentations and to disseminate awareness around your organization. You can employ memorable summaries as inspiration or proof in creative sessions. You can put all the summaries in lists, group them, or stack them. Summaries can appear in maps and diagrams and scenarios. You can compare groups of summaries and use them in strategic discussions. The summaries are evergreen, which means they are timeless. Because summaries have no reference to tools or processes, you can apply them again and again over decades of working with the type of person you developed empathy with.

If you can afford to, write the summaries together with your team. Summarizing together as a group allows your team to come to agreement about the meaning, and later use that solidified agreement as a strength in design discussions. You can certainly write summaries solo, as the team is not crucial to the process. But in large organizations, forging a group understanding has benefits that sometimes outweigh the additional time-cost of having multiple people working on the same thing.


If you prefer, you can write the summary as soon as you collect the quotes together, instead of collecting all the quotes first. Or you can go in fits and spurts. Or, possibly, pick some of the quotes that are more important to your organization and just summarize those. Do it in any way that feels achievable to you.

Start with the Verb

Your first step in writing a summary is to come up with a verb that represents the intent of what the person was thinking, deciding, or feeling. Jot down the first verb that comes to mind. Next, think of a second verb, just in case the first one is not perfectly clear. See if you can think of a third verb and a fourth one. The more verbs you think of, the closer you’ll come to the most unambiguous, expressive verb that you should choose. If one of the stronger verbs you think of happens to be a verb the speaker used, then choose that one, because it will help you remember how he said it.

As an aid, you may also want to jot down the type of summary you’re trying to write: thinking and reasoning, reaction, or guiding principle.

If it seems difficult to think of a good verb, maybe you are thinking about the wrong part of the concept. Find the key part of what is being explained. You may have to break down the words of the quote to get at it; you may have to dissect the language being used. Read between the lines to get the context, intonation, and connotation of the sentences that were uttered. It’s more than the meaning of each word—it’s word association and invoking imagery. It’s the cultural background, popular references, and the social norms of what should not be said directly. It’s sarcasm, being flip, or cynical, or self-deprecating. It’s what the laughter means in different contexts: amusement, pain, irony, self-deprecation, the-system-is-against-us, and so on. To solve the linguistic puzzles represented by the quotes, you almost have to ignore the words themselves to figure out what the person was trying to communicate.

Another reason that picking a verb may be difficult is because the quote is not yet complete—there might be another sentence this person says later that belongs to this concept. The later quote may contain that illustrative verb. Set the summary aside for a while, on the chance that you will encounter the other part of the puzzle a little later.

Why a Verb?

Why start with a verb? First, you want an easy way to compare this summary to past summaries or to all the other summaries from other speakers. If you use the same verb-first format for all summaries, it will be much easier to compare.

Moreover, verbs are closer to the action than nouns. You can imagine the experience of a verb. Nouns represent objects, or maybe categories, or aspects. Nouns can bring a few unconscious assumptions with them. For example, what assumption do you make when you hear, “I needed time for relaxation?” Consequently, verbs make much better candidates for summarizing the things that help you develop empathy.

Unfortunately, you’re up against some ingrained practices. Research and reports traditionally focus on nouns. You might have to fight your organization’s tendency to classify things into predefined, noun-labeled boxes. So in this way, using verbs might help you reframe things. Verbs will help you and your coworkers more easily see new perspectives.

Another habit to fight is making your verbs into gerunds. Gerunds are verbs with “ing” added to them: wondering, yelling, feeling. Adding “ing” makes a verb into a noun—a noun that can be boxed up and kept at a distance, rather than experienced as an action.

First Person, Present Tense

Imagine the personal pronoun “I” when you create your summary verb. Even though the transcript may contain third-person verbs—because in English people often talk about themselves in the third person while storytelling—twist it around to the first person. If you use third person, you have created a sentence where the actor is someone other than yourself. The goal of developing empathy with a person is to be able to “walk in his shoes.” If you keep referring to his reasoning in third person, you never step into his shoes. For example, “He yelled at the coach because he was not paying attention when it happened” is about another person yelling, not about you yelling. It’s easier to feel judgmental or misinterpret a perspective. If you use first person in the present tense, suddenly you’re there in his shoes. “I yell at the coach because he was not paying attention when it happened.” There is a magical difference.

Additionally, you may be reading your summaries two months or two years from now. For consistency, you want to represent the experience as current, something that is going through someone’s mind in the present.

Being “present,” acting out someone else’s story, is the gateway to empathy.

Convey Emotional Reactions as Verbs

Use the verb “feel” to represent emotional reactions and follow it immediately with a word representing the emotion being felt. “Feel” + emotion. Use this equation for most emotions, except the few emotions that have their own verb form, at least in English (see Figure 5.6). If you get stuck trying to find the perfect word to describe the emotion, try using a thesaurus, or there’s a “feelings-inventory” list on the Center for Nonviolent Communication website.3


Usually, you will use the verb “feel” to represent emotional reactions. There are some exceptions in English, which are perfectly good to use as verbs.

Watch out for the English word “feeling.” If you asked the speaker about how he “feels,” you might see a response that describes not an emotional state but a physical state. Just because the word “feel” is in the transcript doesn’t automatically mean it’s an emotion (see Figure 5.7).


In English, someone might use the word “feel” to describe a physical sensation, not an emotion. Skip these.

As mentioned earlier, the word “feel” creeps into use when a speaker is voicing an opinion or conjecture. In English, people will say, “I feel that ...” or “I feel like ...” to announce an opinion or a desire. One way to be aware of these examples is to recognize when the word just after “feel” is not an emotion. “That” and “like” are not emotions. So, when you see the word “feel” in the transcript, don’t assume it’s an emotion being described. Keep reading, and perhaps you’ll see some deeper exploration later that you can use.4

When you see the verb “wish,” it’s about a future state or an alternate scenario to a past experience; it’s conjecture. Skip it. But when you see the verb “hope,” you can interpret that as an emotion. It’s the emotion a person has right now about something that might happen in the future. It’s not conjecture about an emotion in the future, nor even conjecture about the event in the future. It’s an emotion the person is feeling now.

There is another tricky emotional verb. Watch out for the English expression “I hate myself when ....” Usually “hate” is a preference that you can skip. However, in this case, it’s an emotion a person is directing at himself. He is annoyed or angry at himself for something. For clarity’s sake, go ahead and use the alternate emotional vocabulary in your summary. However, if the phrase “hate myself” really helps you remember this particular story, then use “hate” as your summary verb.

The goal is to be able to clearly become the person in your mind when you read the summary later. Writing these summaries is a part of developing the empathy that you can later invoke.

Verbs to Avoid

There are a few verbs that don’t lend any clarity to a summary (see Figure 5.8). When you read unclear verbs later, you find yourself obliged to reread all the quotes just to understand that person again. Save yourself that time and choose a sparkling verb instead.


Verbs that are unclear or not active are hard to understand later. Avoid these verbs.

There are probably other English verbs that should be on the “Verbs to Avoid” list. With every transcript you read, exercise your judgment. For example, the verb “miss” can be passive: “The ball barely missed my head.” Or it can be used as a statement of fact: “I missed the train yet again this morning.” Or it can be used as an emotion: “I miss my summer holidays when ....” Only in the last instance is it valid for developing empathy, and you could summarize more clearly with “I feel nostalgic for my summer holidays when ....” Any time you grapple with a verb that doesn’t seem quite clear enough, consider changing it to something a bit more evocative.

Write the Rest of the Summary

Now that you have a verb to start your summary, complete the sentence. Keep it to one sentence. The brevity will make it faster to read later.

Summaries need to be succinct and relate the core of what the speaker intended. Summaries also need to speak to the context. So clarify your summary by putting the reason for the behavior right after the verb.


Avoid crystallizing or distilling a larger meaning from a collection of quotes that represent a concept. Simply restate, more clearly, what this one speaker was trying to communicate to you. Don’t try to show what this quote signifies in a broader sense, across different people. Save the generalization and synthesis until later; right now, you are still in the stage of developing empathy.

Edit Until It’s Clean and Clear

Because you’re going to use the summary for various purposes, focus on brevity. Part of the idea of writing a summary is to create a faster way to understand the quotes you collected, without having to read through the details and make sense of them again months later. You want the summary to be clean and not confusing. You want to be able to say it aloud and have it flow nicely off your tongue.

Think of your sentence like a mobile. The verb that is the top, with the object just below it, and a few phrases hanging, balanced, off of that.5 If your sentence is a mobile, don’t build it with extra parts that either don’t hang together, are impossible to say aloud, or are actually two sentences glued together awkwardly, causing the mobile to tip to one side (see Figure 5.9).


To the left is a good, clean summary sentence, diagrammed as a balanced mobile. Below is a summary that is a jumble of clauses and does not hang together.

Try to evoke the feel of the quote, but don’t force it. Every detail doesn’t have to show up—just details that will help you remember this person’s story. You can use some of the person’s own phrasing to remind yourself of the story. This shouldn’t be an overwhelming exercise. You don’t have to flail around forcing together a collage of phrases or write a summary that is just as long as the quote. There is no one perfect way to get the summary “right.” If you spend too much time trying to craft a summary, you’re overdoing it.

Ensure That Each Summary Is a Unique Thought

Each concept should only show up once for that speaker. He may refer to the same idea over and over in the transcript, describing it a little better each time, but you should have gathered those distinct quotes together. Only one summary represents the entire set of quotes regarding that one concept.

Likewise, avoid using the same quote in two different summaries. The quote ought to be in service of one unique concept. Even if the quote can be interpreted to be supporting two different concepts, choose one. Keep it simple.

Avoid Compound Sentences

A compound sentence is two sentences glued together with a conjunction (and, but, so, yet, or, nor, for).6 Each sentence has its own actor and verb, and usually an object. “I serve the cake, but she does not want any.” Do not write compound sentences as summaries. As a way to check this, look for the word “and” in your summaries. Even if it’s a simple sentence, with only one actor but with two verbs, rewrite it. You probably have two separate ideas. “I decide to leave the meeting early and start doing other things that make better use of my time.” If this is true, divide them (and the relevant quotes) into two summaries. “I decide to leave the meeting” is separate from “I make better use of my time by starting to do other things.”

Sometimes the ideas are so related, however, that it’s better to join them together using a phrase starting with because, even though, despite, although, since, whereas, etc. “I decide to leave the meeting early because I have better things to do.” The important point that you want to summarize is the decision to leave the meeting; the “better things to do” is the speaker’s reasoning in support of his decision.

Conjunctions themselves are not the culprits. You can use “and” to join two descriptions together. “I feel elated by the praise and support of my boss, who usually does not talk to me.” Just don’t join two verbs together. “I feel elated but laugh to myself about the praise from my boss, because he usually does not talk to me.” These are two separate concepts, each deserving its own separate summary.

Write a summary that would make your grammar teacher proud. Follow the rules of syntax. Add decent punctuation. You want to aim for a single, complex sentence that is easily readable.

Carry Along the Quotes

When writing summaries with any digital tool, you can carry along the quotes, for easy reference later on (see Figure 5.10). This method is data rich but not required—an understanding of what each pile represents is all that is necessary. Handwritten notes are just as good.


These are the same quotes that appeared earlier in this chapter, with summaries written for each concept.

Read It Aloud

If you’re forging these summaries solo, you’ll be amazed how easy it is to spot clarity problems when you read the summaries aloud. There is a book that explains how intonation and rhythm7 help you articulate an idea, and how reading your work aloud really helps you with revisions.

Also, if you are doing this exercise solo, but you will be using the summaries to spread knowledge throughout your organization, it really makes sense to double-check what you’ve written with someone who might be able to point out where you are making assumptions.

Ideally, you would go back to the speaker and ask him to verify your summaries. In the book about interviewing customers, InterViews, the authors discuss whether it is acceptable to work with your own understanding of the transcript, or to go back to the participant and give him a chance to change the way you’ve summarized things.8 This extra step may lead to more time spent circling around someone’s concept of themselves, but if you have the time and resources to involve the participants in a review of your summaries, it has the potential to correct a few nuances.


The two advantages of studying the transcript—doubling your understanding of a person, and learning how to listen better—are really worth your time. Making sense of what a person said from the transcript provides double the depth of understanding than just simply listening does. The summaries are timeless and will continue to be useful for years. Yet, if you need to hurry toward a specific deadline, summaries are optional.



• Make sense of how the concepts come together.

• What to skip in the transcript:

• Explanation of event, process, or scene

• Statement of fact

• Opinion

• Preference

• Generalization

• Passive behavior

• Conjecture

• Concepts that are out of scope



• Start with a verb.

• Write the rest of the summary.

• Edit until it’s clean and clear:

• Ensure that each summary is a unique thought.

• Avoid compound sentences.

• Read it aloud.


Cultivate the soil within your organization so empathy can take root and grow.