How to be a Creative Listener

Let's be honest. Listening—really listening—got difficult. Between beckoning smartphones, endless mental lists, and news that never stops coming, we've forgotten how to hear each other.

In conversations, we’re impatient. When was the last time we truly engaged? During meetings, we succumb to the impulse to interrupt, to be clever, to put in our two cents. And at lectures, we zone out, grateful for an excuse finally to just sit in peace. We all know it’s a problem. But what can we do about it?

Fessing up to our own shabby listening habits, we looked for a solution. We didn’t have to look far. In human-centered design, asking questions and listening for answers is how we start to create anything new. In our work, we pride ourselves on being terrific listeners, using empathy and observation to propel us towards solutions that serve the needs of people. If we could translate those habits into our everyday lives, perhaps listening would feel less like a chore and more like a creative act.

Creative Listening is a set of simple exercises that help people cut through the static, listen attentively, and engage with what they hear. The Creative Listening toolset consists of a set of worksheets with instructions, and four podcasts that reveal how IDEO designers draw on different aspects of listening in their daily work.

Try this tip, for example. Rather than attempt to clear your mind before listening to a talk (is that even possible?), use a current passion project as a lens to focus your attention. How might what you’re hearing relate to what you’re working on? Filtering what you hear through your own interests keeps you invested and might spark new avenues to explore.

We’re not claiming any miracles here, but using Creative Listening tools might counter your bad-listening habits, help you find diamonds of inspiration in the haystack, and hear the stuff that really counts.


Inspiration is the fuel to any creative fire. Sometimes it strikes like lightning, but mostly we find the need to spark it ourselves. Staying open to surprise and embracing ambiguity can help ignite a firestorm of imagination.

Listen to the Inspiration podcast here and download the worksheet here.


Curiosity is the desire to keep things interesting. Allowing yourself to drop any biases and be totally surprised will help you explore, discover, and ultimately push your work forward.

Listen to the Curiosity podcast here and download the worksheet here.


Instead of slogging away for needles in a haystack, intuition can help you find the brilliant diamonds. Rather than scribble down everything that sounds important, notice what resonates with you personally and follow that lead to uncover insights that are unique to you.

Listen to the Intuition podcast here and download the worksheet here.


Big ideas are powerful—if we can wrap our heads around them. Too often, abstraction, buzzwords, and jargon get in the way. Boiling concepts down to their essence makes them easier to grasp, share, and build on.

Listen to the Interpretation podcast here and download the worksheet here.

Sep 2015