In one ear, out the other

by Dr. Anthony Paustian, the author of A Quarter Million Steps: Creativity, Imagination, & Leading Transformative Change

Years ago, I heard John Falconer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Colorado, tell the following story:

A student and his professor were backpacking in Alaska when a grizzly bear started chasing them from a distance. They both started to run, but it was clear that the bear would eventually catch up to them. The student stopped, took off his backpack, got out his running shoes, and began to put them on. His professor said, “You can’t outrun the bear, even in running shoes!” The student replied as he took off, “I don’t need to outrun the bear; I only need to outrun you!”

I believe the moral to this story is the importance of understanding the true nature of the problem at hand. John Dewey, the great educational theorist, once stated that a problem properly defined is half solved. When you apply sticky thinking (creativity) to a properly defined problem, your odds of a timely, improved solution are greatly enhanced. However, (and there’s always a “however”), properly defining a problem is typically much more difficult than it sounds. Doing so is impacted by two different, yet closely related concepts: active listening and perception. We’ll focus on active listening now and on perception in my next piece.

I was the oldest of three children, and according to my parents, I was also the most challenging to raise (I like to think I “taught” my parents how to better raise my younger sister and brother). In fact, I can remember my father frequently using the phrase, “You’re not listening! That went in one ear and out the other.” As human beings it’s easy for all of us to listen to a question and come up with very different views as to its intent, meaning, or importance, which in turn leads to different answers. That’s why it’s important to ask good questions.

Let’s say I’m sitting in the living room, probably being a bum and watching football, and my wife is preparing dinner in the kitchen. I ask her, “What time is it?” She may respond by saying, “It’s 6:00,” or “It’s time for dinner,” or “Ten minutes later than the last time you asked,” or “The same time it is in there.” Although all are technically true, they don’t get to the same answer in the same manner. Perhaps a better question would have been, “What time does it show on the clock on the microwave in front of you?”

Becoming good at sticky thinking requires not only asking good questions (see my last piece Golfing with Bananas), but also actively listening to the answers. Hearing is not listening, and research indicates that most people retain as little as 25 percent of what they hear.1 Active listening is an intensive mental effort to maintain focus while observing and concentrating on the details of what’s being said.

Our minds are so busy processing the information bombarding them from so many sources, like our ringing smartphones, text messages and email notifications. It’s easy to mentally move ahead of the speaker, and we may find we’ve let information enter one ear and exit the other. When you’re introduced to someone new, how well do you remember what they said, or even their name? Through active listening, a greater degree of awareness, understanding, empathy and clarity will emerge that will serve to enhance sticky thinking and make the connections stronger.

Let’s boost our creative, sticky thinking and improve our listening. Here are a few tips to get you started:

•  Allow for silence. If you rush to fill momentary silences, you cease being a listener.

•  Ask stimulating, open-ended questions to facilitate connections and sticky thinking. Avoid questions that require only a yes or no.

•  Use attentive eye contact and verbal and physical cues to show you are listening, such as “uh-hmm,” “yes,” or a simple smile. Reflect emotion.

•  Occasionally repeat or paraphrase the speaker’s main points in your mind, or even verbally, to help you remember them.

•  Know your biases and try to avoid premature judgments (remember that everything is perceptional–something we’ll discuss more in my next piece).

Practice Challenge:  The key to sticky thinking is to continually ask questions and actively listen to the answers. Start by selecting a few important people in your life and strive to be an active listener with them; your spouse and boss might be good starting points. Remember, practice makes permanent.

©2014  Anthony D. Paustian

1Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying.  Retrieved December 28, 2014, from the Mind Tools website:

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the author of four books including his most recent, A Quarter Million Steps. For more information, please visit his website at


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