Listen Up

Throughout our formal and informal education, from preschool to postdoc, we’re taught how to read, how to write, how to speak. But we don’t get any instruction about how to listen. Even though it’s how we take in information and get clues about what’s happening around us, even though listening is essential to problem solving and to collaborating with others, it’s rare that listening skills are part of a curriculum. We don’t learn how to listen.

As a result, we may think we’re listening to someone who’s talking to us, when what we’re really doing is thinking about how to talk back. There’s a constant background chatter: Do I agree or not? Have I ever encountered this before? How is this relevant? We instantly filter information and map it against our own experience and opinions.

You may have heard the term active listening. It’s used often in the fields of communication training and conflict management. The idea is to listen with the objective of achieving full understanding. It’s not about coming back with an answer, or even a smart follow-up question. It’s about opening your ears and your mind to fully hear what a speaker is saying.

People who listen actively often wait before responding to give the person who’s talking time to fully finish their thought. Instead of providing an answer or a “me, too” remark, they’ll re-state what they heard, to be sure they got it. Or if they ask a clarifying question, it’s one that will truly help them understand the speaker. There’s lots of eye contact, and they’ve probably set their smart phone down to give full attention.

Needless to say, it’s a much more satisfying experience to converse with someone who listens this generously. And if you’re self-possessed enough to listen to people this way, it’s amazing to see the reaction from others when they feel like you’ve really heard them. There’s research that shows the expression on your face when you listen can alter what information a speaker decides to share.

Listening and the Creative Process

We urge the groups we work with to clarify a challenge before trying to solve it. Too often people start hunting for solutions right away, and part of our creative process is to make sure we’re addressing the real or a root problem, first. This means listening closely to what problem owners say about the current situation, or how they describe barriers to the ideal outcome. It means listening for stakeholder needs and trying to fully understand all the problems that might be addressed.

Then there’s the issue of throw-away data. This is the information we think isn’t important, for instance, the disclaimer before what start to talk about what we believe is the meat of the problem. It’s full of context: “Well, we haven’t been given all the data yet but here’s what we know…” Usually it’s our assumptions about the context that end up limiting us when we’re trying to be creative. If you can listen closely for the throw-away comments that leak that information, and clarify them, you can get to what might be the heart of the problem.

Later in the process, when we generate ideas, listening is just as valuable. One of the key guidelines for group brainstorming is to build on the ideas of others. Refuting an idea midstream only stops down the flow. If we can listen, generously, to understand the premise of an idea and build on its potential, rather than falling into a debate about its faults, we’re more likely to get to better and bolder ideas.

The Humility of Creativity

If we genuinely want to be innovative, we need to accept that sometimes being wrong is part of that process. Many of our ideas – especially the riskier ones – might seem foolish, or might not work. The reason driving the need to innovate might be because what we’ve been doing something wrong. There might be moments when we’re not sure how things are going to turn out. As we develop potential ideas, we may need to accept the input of others, in order to make them feasible and workable. This requires listening without need to be right, which means listening openly and genuinely, for understanding.

Listening is not passive. It requires real attention and purpose, and takes a lot of energy. Occasionally I catch myself half-listening or focusing more on how I want to respond, and then I know I’m not really listening. I try to correct it right away, because when I listen to my colleagues generously, it establishes a rapport that leads to more authentic problem solving and more meaningful creative output.


Know Further: How well do you listen? Take this Listening Skills Test. Read McKinsey’s executive guide to better listening, or the ten commandments of good listening. There’s an international journal of listening. Some interesting research about how listeners and speakers have brain waves in the same part of the brain. Drummer Bill Bruford on listening and creativity, and a phenomenal TED talk by deaf drummer Evelyn Glennie about how to listen.