Why listening could be your innovation super-power


“Listening, unlike other senses is necessarily collaborative, an act of sharing and so a powerful means to create and reach materially different and more ambitious outcomes than those allowed simply by staying within our own thoughts.” John Keith – Managing Director – Head of Financial Institutional Coverage at BNP Paribas

Written by Dr Annette Bramley – Director of the N8 Research Partnership

When was the last time you felt genuinely listened to by a colleague? Hopefully it was recently, as we all need to feel respected and listened to. Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly rare in the modern workplace, as our time and attention are under constant pressure.

We know that collaborations are built on relationships; but what kind of a relationship can you have with someone that does all the talking and never listens? One of the most sure-fire ways of finding people we want to work with is to be curious and willing to learn without the expectation of getting something immediate out of the exchange. Be present – and yes that does mean putting away those pressing emails, and not imagining or assuming what others know or think. Instead, invest time to listen and empathise.

Listening is the basis of connection and hence relationship and collaboration, yet it is a skill that is not widely taught. Indeed, many academic researchers have been trained to communicate solely in terms of putting forward and defending their own hypotheses and opinions. Listening skills are like a muscle – if you don’t use it, you lose it. Some people have more natural talent for listening, but everyone can improve their listening skills with practice. Collaboration therefore requires that researchers develop listening skills that don’t necessarily come naturally, but could become their super-power.

As long ago as 1957, researchers at the University of Minnesota were studying the challenges of listening in business, and found that it’s actually harder to concentrate while listening than during any other form of personal communication. This is because humans think much faster than we talk. The average rate of speech is around 125 words per minute, but our brains process this information almost 4 times as quickly.[2].

This creates a listening “gap” – as a listener we have spare capacity for thinking when we listen. Taking notes, especially handwritten notes, helps us to concentrate on what is being said; by making use of some of that spare processing capability. The process of listening, summarising and writing prevents our brains from racing ahead and fosters understanding of what is being said[3]. Incidentally, students that took notes on laptops during this study tended to transcribe what was being said and retained less.

Oscar Trimboli explores the potential of what he calls the “125/400” rule; the gap between the speed at which we speak and which we think, in his book, Deep Listening[4].

He describes how the brains of speakers are also thinking faster than they can speak, and how listeners can help speakers to more fully express their thinking. When exploring unmet research needs, if we can help our collaborators more fully express their challenges and experiences, we may uncover new directions for research which were not immediately obvious, or constraints which hadn’t previously been communicated. Not only that, but the spare processing capacity of speakers means that they can pick up on signals listeners give off when they are not paying attention. I’m sure you can think of some, like looking at a phone or other device, interrupting or otherwise appearing distracted or bored. This in turn causes the speaker to lose their train of thought, or rushing to complete what they are saying, perhaps leaving out useful or vital information which could have led to a new research direction. You miss out on valuable information if your attention wanders while someone is speaking; in effect you are choosing to limit your own ability to innovate. The opportunity for misunderstanding or miscommunication is also so much higher.

Diversity of perspectives are essential for addressing the complex challenges that face us today; but it is not enough just to have people with different perspectives in the same room, but to really listen and learn from each other. Otherwise we may as well just be back in our silos. The more people you listen to, the more you learn, the better your understanding and the more ideas for solutions you will be able to generate.


[1] https://hbr.org/1957/09/listening-to-people; Nichols R.G and Stevens L.A.; 1957.

[2] Carver, R. P., Johnson, R. L., & Friedman, H. L. (1971). Factor Analysis of the Ability to Comprehend Time-Compressed Speech. Journal of Reading Behavior, 4(1), 40–49. https://doi.org/10.1080/10862967109546974

[3] http://www.collective-evolution.com/2016/06/05/a-secret-for-learning-dont-take-notes-with-your-laptop/

[4] Deep Listening, Trimboli O; 2019