Want to Spark Innovation? Start by Changing How You Listen

With millions of messages bombarding us every day, the ability to listen is becoming a lost art. As leaders, we need to be able to hear what can move our businesses forward. After all, none of us is as smart as all of us, right? So why are we failing at listening? Have our smartphones made us dumb listeners, looking for ways to turn off instead of tuning in?

Israeli’s renowned social scientist, Yuval Noah Harari, said, “In ancient times, having power meant having access to data. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore.” The quest for power — for knowledge — remains, but access has changed. Overwhelm rules the day, and parsing through messages for real meaning is a constant challenge. For leaders looking for fresh ideas, listening has become a nuanced and critical talent. Here’s how to change at least half of your next conversation, and open yourself up to innovation and critical perspectives, by bumping up your listening skills.

There are three ways to listen; which one best describes you?

1. Listening to affirm

When someone shares a data point or anecdote, do you find yourself instantly making comparisons to something you’ve read, heard, or experienced? When you listen to affirm, you find yourself saying things like, “Oh yes, I believe Stephen Covey said that in his book…” or, “Well, when we visited Jamaica, what we did was…” or, “I agree with you, because in my article that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, I said…”

Affirming perpetuates conversational bias, in which new information is only useful when it verifies and reinforces what we already know. By referencing the past, or a previously researched data point, we make comparisons that are comforting: “I know what you’re talking about!” or perhaps even, “I have a frame of reference, so I’m still maintaining my ego-driven sense of expertise and authority on the subject!” With Amazon-like accuracy, we find similar topics to relate back to the current conversation, and we take comfort in the patterns we’ve already established.

My only question is: Where’s the opportunity for new information? Where’s the innovation if you’re only listening to affirm what you already know? It’s not easy to come into a conversation without a sense of knowing, and, as Harari says, “Knowing what to ignore.” Are you ignoring what doesn’t confirm your past experiences? If so, it might be difficult for you to have new ones. And effective listening is about creating something new, isn’t it?

2. Listening to defend

Welcome to the listening habits of attorneys. Don’t blame the lawyers; the adversarial nature of the legal system forces counselors to defend the law or their clients. Sometimes, they even get to do both. When we listen to defend, we lock into a position — a position of right vs. wrong, us vs. them. New ideas are blocked, reframed, and positioned for dismissal. This posture is often found in arguments and disagreements. In a confrontation, two parties will listen as if everything is a potential threat, a lingering challenge, or an invitation to restate an unshakeable viewpoint. Sound familiar?

The resolution to a dispute – whether in business, relationships, or the courtroom — always comes when the conversation changes. How can you hear that change if you’re only waiting to counterpunch? Effective listening requires you to drop your guard, even if someone’s viewpoint is wildly different than your own. If your first thought is, “I’m being attacked!” take a look at where that thought is coming from. As rocket scientist Roger von Oech said: “Always look for the second right answer.” Wait for your second thought to emerge. That’s the one that says, “Even if I’m challenged, I can still listen. New ideas won’t destroy me; they may not even sway me. But without balanced input, my output isn’t going to be very good.”

Listening to others is not a sign of weakness, capitulation, or agreement. If you don’t hear various viewpoints, your defensiveness keeps you away from discovery. And discovery is the third way — the best way – to listen.

3. Listening to discover

What’s missing in modern-day discourse? Discovery. It’s not the way the saying goes, but discovery is actually the mother of invention. And in today’s business environment, discovery is a necessity. Why? Because innovation doesn’t come from what you already know.

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Think about it. Affirming your experience might be comforting, but new results require a new approach. Most people realize that the most effective way to defend a position (if that’s really your intention) is to gather all the facts and data points first. Listening to discover is a vital component of leadership language, a simple and practical way to hear what matters in the midst of the noise.

When you go into your next conversation, are you waiting to talk or listening to discover? Remember, just because you’re taking in what someone has to say, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your expertise, weakened your title, or diminished your personal value. (You’ve actually enhanced it.) Listening to discover, in a business context, simply means you are interested in gathering valuable information. By seeking new results, you keep an open mind in a search for innovation and peak performance. And isn’t that a big part of leadership? When you’re asked to steer the ship, taking in data points, especially anecdotal ones, can help you to avoid that next iceberg.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all ideas are good ones. You’re not Santa Claus, and it’s not time for the inmates to run the asylum. The request for “Bikini Fridays” isn’t going to get a green light. But if your listening starts with “stop,” how are you making room for new ideas? Only through discovery can you build new results, new efficiencies, and new impact. Stop defending. Stop affirming. Start engaging. Your company and your team will thank you for it.

Chris Westfall

Chris Westfall is a sought-after business consultant, communication coach, keynote speaker, and the author, co-author, or publisher of eight books. Advising hundreds of thousands of leaders from high-growth entrepreneurial enterprises, Shark Tank startups, and Fortune 100 companies, he has helped create multimillion-dollar revenue streams for businesses on four continents. He is the U.S. National Elevator Pitch Champion and the author of the new book Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results. To learn more, visit westfallonline.com.