Creativity and the Art of Listening

Making new connections, for real

Mostly the act of creativity is seen from the creator’s point of view. At the same time, the full creative process by definition does not take place in a vacuum; as creative experts acknowledge: everything is a remix. So how does (better) listening improve the creative process and outcomes?

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Hearing is not the same as listening

As a long time practitioner and modest writer on creative processes, and with some capability to recognise my own weaknesses, I was triggered when I came across the notion of the importance of listening. Of course, everyone ‘listens’ to some extent. Or rather, everyone hears, but in many cases that is not the same as actual, deep, listening. Recognising this, I explored some relevant writings on the topic, including the book You’re not listening. What you’re missing and why it matters by Kate Murphy.

It basically drives down the key point of the title, in a convincing way. And whereas most skill development and management books after a promising few pages mostly keep on repeating themselves, in this book the message is given just about the right depth and stops before the repetition might become annoying. It is a recommended and very accessible book which I am sure is somewhat confrontational for just about everyone. I think almost none of us have fully mastered the Art of listening. Even the author — smartly, or rather, wisely — acknowledges her own imperfection in this which allows all readers to more honestly admit their own shortcomings as well.

The relevance for creativity

Now, while reading the book has autonomous merit, including for myself, I subconsciously always try to be alert to detect what I lay my eyes or ears upon might imply for enriching my views on creativity. Much writing and practice in that field revolves around the creator, or creators. At the same time, any creative expert knows that creativity is about making new connections. Even while striving for absolute novelty is futile (“everything is a remix”), novelty-in-context revolves around making new connections for that context.

Can deeper listening lead to deeper creativity?

In many exercises with regards to creativity, the focus to make such new connections is on either 1. Individual inspiration: be open to let in inspiration from anywhere and tap into a wide range of sources to sense what ‘speaks’ to you, or 2. Group-wise association: Immediately build on snippets of what others share. In principle, these are indeed ways to make (new) connections. However, it has now occurred to me that these ways hardly secure that the ‘receiver’ recognises the intention or thought process of the ‘sender’. In many cases not recognising that intention may even be the intentional purpose, that is what so-called free association tends to be about. In other words, receivers are encouraged to focus on formulating their own message rather than hearing and actually listening to the potential richness that the sender might have put in theirs.

This begs the confrontational question: should creativity be more about deeper listening, to inform deeper creativity?

The dilemma, or the Harmony?

Looking at what widely acknowledged ‘applied creativity’ (i.e, innovation) experts IDEO say about this, the dilemma is implicitly recognised although not articulated as such: they stress that creativity is mainly sparked by inspiration and flow and channeled by the intuition when you have ‘got’ something; both imply some extent of listening, but mostly focus on the eye of the beholder, i.e. the creator and their skills to create their own next associative sending step. Seeking inspiration and using intuition to decide when you in fact have been inspired are encouragements to act on impulse and run with an idea. That is at least to an extent contradicory to the process of listening attentively, deeply, without own pre-set agenda and fighting the impulse to (re)act, i.e. create, immediately when the opportunity arises. The latter occurs in particular when the creative process is compressed in high-energy (ideation) sessions.

My own interpretation how to deal with all this is being aware of the non-binary nature of just about everything. Like I wrote before: while the principle of asking questions is a good indicator for curiosity, not all questions are curious. Some are plain lazy or intended to let you appear interested, and will do little in terms of letting you actually learn something new. Similarly for the topic of listening, there are times when listening is not the right recipe anymore. In fact the book acknowledges this (Ch. 17). The complication of course being, when exactly should the benefit of being patient, even remaining silent to ‘tease out relevant next utterances’, make way to moving on. When does the possible benefit not outweigh the downsides anymore? I imagine the magic word there is intuition.

Train to restrain, but not infinitely refrain

What I take from all this is that the skills of this intuitive judgment can be enhanced by exercising the Art of listening a bit more first. The impulse to stop listening and give your own thoughts the benefit of the doubt instead of the potential future relevant thoughts of others, should first be tamed a little bit before you can jump curves and reach the next level of Creative flow. It’s a fascinating thought: “train to restrain, but not infinitely refrain (from)”. Also touched upon in an earlier post: perhaps we can think in terms of Harmony rather than Dilemma?

Towards harmony in practice

As for myself, I have started to slowly get this into my system: trying to fight the impulse of (re)acting to something someone says, pace my own thought process a bit, possibly scribble down a single word, but try and keep my attention to what the other person is saying while letting them finish talking. It is a tense exercise of will on my part I can tell you.

“Allowing individual trains of thought to gather speed instead of assuming their first stop is the best one to be a junction for the next train.”

In terms of creative exercises, in particular the enormous range of brainstorm-formats, an interesting option would be to experiment with not making the direct free association dominate, but ‘delayed association’. The general common practice and vision is to let idea formation benefit from flow, and I am in principle a supporter of that. However, I also feel tempted to challenge that common wisdom. For example, in an idea generation session or even (free) association round, instead of immediate reactions to each other’s words, we might allow someone to create their own train of thought, out loud, encourage ‘no holds barred’ in that train also allowing room for questions rather than answers, listen attentively, let it sink in, and only after the train has come to a stop build on any of the stops in between that particularly resonates with you. And then the next person. Allowing individual trains of thought to gather speed instead of assuming the first stop is the best one to be a junction for the next train.

All-in all this seems to be my main take-away in linking listening to creativity: the latter is about making new connections, but there is no definition of where that connection needs to start and actual listening might give you many more options where that could be done.

Chief Curiosity at The New ABC. Always Be Curious and forget “the box” altogether.

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