Greg Voisen poses a question to David Sibbet during a podcast interview.

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Question: You mentioned that visual listening is at the heart of every meeting. What do you mean by visual listening? I’ve heard of all kinds of listening – compassionate listening, listening from the heart – but what is visual listening?

David Sibbet: Visual listening is showing people how you are listening to them by drawing what you’re hearing as you listen.

If you think about the traditional graphic design field, most of it involves a “push” strategy. You interview clients to find out their needs and expectations, then you give them concepts and they review what you have created. You end up with an artifact.

Similarly, with most PowerPoint designs, someone spends a lot of time working on it. Then the design is basically pushed at people with the request, “Look at this great idea I’ve got.”

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In contrast, visual listening is a “pull” strategy. It is similar to judo or aikido. As people are coming at you with their ideas, you are in a receptive mode, showing them that you are receiving them by diagramming what they are saying.

Make Your Listening Transparent

You can get a sense of this in a simple one-on-one interview, where you might be thinking through a problem or scoping out a consulting engagement. Move around to the same side where the other person is sitting, and, on a piece of paper in front of you, diagram what you are hearing.

The person who is being listened to this way immediately gets feedback about what’s connecting and what’s not. Your notation doesn’t need to be artistically interesting. It could be just a couple of words here and there, accompanying a few simple symbols.

Basically, it is about you tracking what you’re paying attention to, with the other person being able to see right away what you are getting from what is being said, as well as what you aren’t noting that may be important to include. If it is a key oversight, the person you are listening to will automatically repeat it to make sure you hear it.

Visual Listening Ensures People Feel Heard

An example of visual listening: In the workshops we run at The Grove, we ask people to share their career stories in pairs, with the listener diagramming it on a timeline. It does not matter how you draw it. The important thing is that every time you make a mark, it shows the person, “OK, I got that part. Yes, I’m with you.”

The person who is talking naturally tends to slow down, because a listener’s ability to write is slower than most people’s speed of talking. The listener can then observe the notes as they are being taken, perhaps realizing, “Oh, I had better fill in. I’d better repeat that, because they didn’t quite get it.”

Conclusion

Doing this practice of visual listening yields tremendous benefits. In addition to providing active, real-time feedback to the people who are speaking, taking visual notes will transform your own ability to listen.

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NOTES

This article is adapted from a portion of Greg Voisen’s 6/6/13 Inside Personal Growth podcast with David Sibbet. Listen to the full interview here.

To learn more about methods and tools for visual leadership, see The Grove Consultants International’s website.

Also see David Sibbet’s three-book Visual Leadership series, published by John Wiley & Sons:

—Visual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management, & Organization Change (2013)
Visual Teams: Graphic Tools for Commitment, Innovation, & High Performance 
(2011)
—Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes, & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity
(2010)