Creativity and Listening

listening and creativityEveryone seems to agree that listening is important.

On Amazon you’ll find loads of books about it. And the web is overflowing with sites and articles about listening. There are 21-step programs. 13-step programs. 9-step programs. 6-, 5- and even a 4-step program (for those aspiring listeners, I assume, who are pressed for time).Some promote “anthropological listening.” Others write about the “Zen” of listening. For some listening is “sacred art.” For others it’s all about “skills and technique.”

There sure is a lot of talk about listening.

But in our contemporary world there doesn’t seem to be much listening going on. Which is really no surprise, considering how noisy life’s become. Add to that the clamor that naturally goes on inside our heads as conscious human beings, and listening becomes a near impossibility.

I can’t listen to you because I can’t hear you.

So, at the risk of swelling the cacophony, let me add some thoughts of my own about listening, how it’s related to creativity and how engaging in creative work can make you better at it.

It might be good to start with how I define listening, or at least offer up my ideal of what listening could be. There are those who speak about active listening, but for me listening is a state of absolute receptivity.

When you’re really listening, you don’t expect anything and you don’t want anything. If you’re listening to a person, for example, you simply take in what they’re saying:  the timbre of their voice, the rhythm of their speech, their inflection. Sure, a great deal amount of mental activity is required to rationally understand what’s being said, but this, ideally, should be happening in the in background. That little voice inside us should not be commenting upon or judging what you’re hearing. There will be time for that later, when you recall what you’ve listened to and have the chance to speak about it and be listened to yourself.

This state of receptivity also applies to listening to music, and even to the visual world.  Broadly speaking, we can listen to a painting or a photograph in the same way we listen to a symphony. We can take it in, initially at least, without going on and on about it inside our own minds.  (Try it for yourself:  next time you’re in front of a painting, rather than look at it, try to listen to it. Changing your approach will significantly alter your experience.)

Put simply, listening is about temporarily relinquishing control.

I’ve come to this by reflecting upon what made me such an inadequate listener for so long.See, I wasn’t born a listener. I was born a talker. From the time I was a kid, I could easily express what I was thinking, and I liked doing it. This had its benefits. It impressed people. It could also be entertaining.  And it made me feel smart. But, as you can imagine, it had huge drawbacks. I wouldn’t let others get a word in edgewise. I interrupted. I could be, well, overbearing.

Looking back on it, I realize what was driving all this was a need to be in control of the situation, and the way I exerted control was by filling up the space between others and myself with the sound of my own voice.

Now, I won’t go into whatever underlying reasons might have motivated this behavior. I’ll let the psychologists and sociologists ponder that one. What I do know, however, is that over-talking and under-listening appear to be pretty common traits.

And I’m glad to say that over the years this urge to dominate the discussion has lessened significantly, to the point where it hardly exists at all. I’ve learned to listen. Better yet, I’ve learned to enjoy listening. And I’ve reaped enormous benefits, both professionally and personally. Perhaps this is just a result of getting older.

But I think it also has a lot to do with the time I’ve spent doing creative work. I would venture to say that engaging in creative work is possibly the best way for us to learn how to listen, because one side of the creative process is very much about relinquishing control, about being receptive, about, as I said above,  not wanting anything. This is how we generate or accumulate the material from which we ultimately make something that has form, utility and meaning.

Listening is also critical to the other side of the creative process, the one in which you give form to, or extract it from, the material you’ve generated. This is the stage when we sort, filter, accept and reject. It’s also the stage where we most often get blocked.

One of the reasons for this is that we’re trying to impose an order on the material, and it’s just not listening. When this happens I tell myself:  “relax, just know your material and the answer will reveal itself.” It might sound a little mystical, but it works.

Other artists and craftsman describe their technique in similar terms. Some say that they let the material “speak” to them. Legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson claimed that “I don’t take pictures, the pictures take me.”

What we learn from the creative process is that giving up control, momentarily at least, is a necessary path to success. Creative work gives us a chance to practice the art of simply taking things in without succumbing to the urge to dominate them. It’s a laboratory of sorts, a safe setting where you can experience a mindset that for so many of us, if not all of us, is totally unnatural.

Better yet, the lessons you learn from the creative process can yield enormous rewards in all areas of your life: at the workplace, in your business dealings and your relationships overall. It may even be a way for you to discover an oasis of peace within our clamorous modern life. It’s certainly helped me, and I’m sure it will help you.

Thanks for listening.


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