When I was eight years old, I had a goldfish. Every time I saw him surface, I gave him extra food. I thought he was hungry. Now I know better. Goldfish that come to the surface gasp for air. They do not get enough oxygen, because the water surface of a fish bowl is too small.

In conversations we often think that we directly understand what the other person means. And we respond as soon as we do. But if you do not check and explore further, you will never figure out what the other person is really about.

Why are we such bad listeners?

To listen well, you should not do anything with the associations that pop up in your head. ‘Listening without lamps’, we called that at the consulting firm where I used to work. And it is hard to listen without lamps, because you cannot turn them of.

So it is hard to keep you attention with your conversation partner. And that is not the only reason you listen poorly. If you have your own ideas about a subject, you also have limited space for what he says. Your brain wants one truth. It finds it difficult to handle two insights next to each other.

And your ego is in the way: you want to be right, or smart. Or you are a manager and you think you should know everything. We all have a self image we want to keep up. If it is under pressure, you get scared or afraid. And you stop listening.

What helps to listen better?

Meditating. That teaches you to leave your thoughts and ego for what they are.

Or drawing.


Yes, that is what the chairman of the board of a big bank did when we were talking about innovation. My colleague and I sat at the other site of his desk in his glass office. He scribbled abstract figures on an piece of paper. ‘I don’t do this because I am not interested,’ he said, ‘it helps me to concentrate on the conversation.’

Recently scientists have proven that what the CEO did, works. They also proved that if you draw, you better remember what the other persons says. It does not matter what you draw, just some doodling is fine. But you remember even better if you draw things that have to do with the topic. Then your drawings are called visual notes. This is a visual summary of the story so far.

‘Convenient, doodling and visual notes,’ you may think, ‘but if you do that you are not immediately in a conversation.’ That is right. If you want to understand what the other person really is about, you draw together.

Then you have a visual dialogue

In a visual dialogue you structure your thoughts on paper. In shapes, symbols and key words. You do not draw pretty pictures. You each make your own drawing, or you draw together on one piece of paper. During the conversation you look at the drawing and add things to it.

But I am not going to draw every time I talk with talk someone?

You don’t always have to pick up a pen during a conversation. Only if you explore a complicated question and you really want to know what the other person thinks. For example in a coaching session or with a client. Or if you trying to resolve an issue with a colleague. Of with your partner.

How come you listen automatically if you draw things out together?

That happens because you do not immediately understand a picture. Ok, if someone draws a cat it is clear. Unless the cat symbolizes something else. You also need an explanation if someone draws a more abstract form, or a symbol that you do not know. Then you ask what the other person means.

Drawing clears your head. You do not have to keep your thoughts top of mind, because they are on paper. Your insights and that of the other person are next to each other, visible for both of you.

Your brain processes that without effort. It has an enormous capacity to process visual information: two thirds of your brain activity is focused on that. You just see two drawings, your mind does not have to look for one truth. Your eyes and brain immediately get to work with what they see on paper.

You see how things connect and you get to the core

If you draw together, it is easier to focus on the content. A drawing attracts your attention and seeing someone draw makes it stay there. You are curious what comes next. Think about what happens when you see someone sketching in the street.


Listening is not something that comes naturally, but drawing makes it a lot easier.

And what can I do now?

Make some visual notes during your meeting tomorrow.

A visual summary of this blog. Download the pdf here.