Daniel Roe, CEO of messaging company Concision, explains how powering up our listening skills can help encourage innovation.
“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
Bernard Baruch (1870 – 1965), US financier and philanthropist
What’s the connection between innovation and listening?
This is a question we’ve been thinking about for some time, because listening is at the heart of what I do on a daily basis. (At Concision, we help organisations communicate more effectively with their audiences, through a mixture of strategic analysis, content and design.)
The more we’ve worked with clients with innovative ideas, the more I’ve come to believe that crafting a message is engaging in innovation too. Crafting a message is (after all) about uncovering something new, something potentially exciting. You try to understand at a deeper level what makes a company tick, and to spot hidden approaches, values and services that might be overlooked.
The Information Age encourages us to process instantly but listen ‘thinly.’ Our tweets are limited to 280 characters. A Snapchat lasts 10 seconds. We can even crank through that audiobook list at “3x playback speed.”
But you can’t afford to rush message. Your message will end up setting the direction for everything else – so you need to get it right. To get to the heart of who you are (or who someone else is), you need to take the time to listen and ask questions. You could call it Deep Listening. It’s a major part of our process, and one we’re constantly developing.
Here are some approaches that we have found helpful.
Cultivate the freedom to think
As every office worker knows, distractions are toxic to clear thinking. And we are interrupted, on average, once every three minutes. By choosing to listen deeply – shutting down email and concentrating intently – you are going against the grain. You might be taken aback by how it feels to turn off the outside world for a few hours and focus on creative thinking about your business. On which note…
Turn off the smartphones
Recent cognitive science studies on smartphones are turning up worrying revelations about their impact on creativity. It seems that notifications stunt problem-solving and raise anxiety. What’s more, they alter the dynamics of conversation. One experiment found that the mere presence of a phone distracts our subconscious enough to diminish trust and “interpersonal closeness.” If you want to connect, you need to switch off.
Repeat back what you’re hearing. This communicates that you’re processing the detail; that you’re on the same page. But more than that, it also allows you to clarify and tighten ideas as you go. “You say we believe this as an organisation, but can we drill down into how we do it?” Or even: “What if we were to do this instead?” By gently challenging assumptions, solutions become verbalised and a message begins to emerge naturally.
Look for the invisible successes
Our experience suggests many organisations are innovating brilliantly, on a near-daily basis. But they aren’t necessarily aware of it. One of our clients is a systems developer. In the kickoff meeting an executive mentioned, in passing, that their staff frequently resolve customers’ software issues by penning code innovations in their spare time – often for the sheer joy of solving the puzzle. It turned out that many of these solutions were totally unique to the market. Careful listening unearthed an important, unexploited opportunity for our client.
Laying the groundwork for these kinds of light-bulb moments – when the person you’re talking to suddenly sees their strengths with fresh clarity – is a hugely rewarding experience (and one of the deep pleasures of my job). A recent deep data dive by Harvard Business Review found that building a person’s self-esteem is actually more crucial in listening than the skills we traditionally imagine, such as staying quiet and nodding energetically. “Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialogue, rather than a one-way ‘speaker versus hearer’ interaction,” they found. “Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them.”
The rise of the Web has encouraged us to think we can offload research, memories and knowledge-gathering to computers. “I’ll Google that later,” we say. But science suggests we need to vocalise ideas – and write them down – if we want to encode them on our minds. One way is to take notes as you listen. And when you see the key points written down, the bigger story often begins to reveal itself.
Make good coffee
Caffeine oils the gears of innovation, as someone once said (actually it may just have been me). So harness it for brainstorming sessions – and make sure it’s the good stuff! When it comes to listening deeply, after all, it’s the little details that make all the difference.
Based in Durham, Concision provides message-building, content, branding and marketing for organisations across the North East and around the world. Find out more about their work, or get in touch with them, at concision.co.uk.