Innovation and Listening

This morning I was pointed to an article on “The Five Mental Habits of Innovative People” that I found interesting, because it identifies the skillsets I would want to foster in my students, especially in a course related to creativity (like writing).

Drawing from research by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen at BYU, called “How Do Innovators Think?” [available at Harvard Business Publishing’s neat “Creativity at Work” page, which is worth a look-see], Jessica Stillman isolates (and explains) these five “mental habits”:

* Associating
* Questioning
* Observing
* Experimenting
* Networking

The researches suggest ‘questioning’ is really the engine that drives all of the above, yet “questioning on its own doesn’t have a direct effect without the others.”

In my classes, I have been a big advocate for question-generation — it is the trigger behind all “inquiry” — creative and scholarly — and it protects the teacher from doing all the thinking for the student (without thinking, no learning!). I run students through an activity I call ‘question-storming’; I often give them prompts for writing that encourage them to raise their own questions-at-issue; I’ll play devil’s advocate to challenge them to question their own assumptions; etc.

When a writer approaches the blank page “questioning” rather than feeling as though they need to be the “authority” they are open to making discoveries through writing…and they never have block.

What would I add to the list? LISTENING.

By which I mean “Active Listening”.
Although ‘listening’ (like ‘reading’) is related to ‘observing’, I don’t think people think of ‘listening’ as a skill that leads to innovation and creativity. They think of it as a passive act, which it is not. Part of this assumption of passivity comes from the education system: we sit in desks our whole lives, listening, listening, listening…more than doing, creating, innovating. The invisible work of learning happens in our heads, if we are self-disciplined enough to pay attention and listen actively. But that skill is rarely cultivated or directly taught.
LISTENING is crucial to mastering the art of concentration, but it also factors into creativity. As a creative writer, I could never write dialogue if I didn’t listen closely to how people actually speak — and not just listening to the words, but also to the musicality of it. If I did not listen intensely I could not know what it means to be a reader, who mentally ‘listens’ to the author’s voice as they read. Listening enables emulation and imitative learning, as well: when we listen, we see how others raise questions and discover the pathways available to us in an attempt to answer them. When we listen to an audience, we can test our own answers to questions by getting responses. So listening is a feedback loop into questioning. Listening fuels creativity. Not all creativity springs out from within us; sometimes it pools and settles in, before feeding into the outward flow.

If your teaching is in a rut, or if you want to try to do something innovative in your classroom to solve problems or enable excitement in the room, try listening to your students. You might learn something.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

3 thoughts on “Innovation and Listening”

  1. I really like this concept of “active listening”. I definitely agree that listening factors into creativity. Great point that listening is in fact an active exercise, not a passive one.

  2. Thanks, Todd!
    Uncannily, one of my colleagues at Seton Hill (Mike Atherton) showed me a book on creativity that looks really interesting: “Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity” by E. Paul Torrence. Torrence mentions innovation as only one form of creativity…intriguing!

  3. Great concept. All of the best innovation I have been part of as a manager came from listening to other people. Most of the time it was their idea. I just listened and then experimented. I am sure not all ideas I listened too and implemented where a success. But I do remember the ones that were.

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