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The Visualizers Toolbox

by Michael Erickson

The fine art of “Active Listening”

In November of 2011, I was the designated “graphic recorder for the “Systems Thinking in Action Conference, an annual event that was held this year in Seattle Washington.

I received a lot of excited response to my work, with a great many people described it as if I'd performed some kind of “magic”. It was a great experience since this was probably the FIRST time I'd plied my craft outside the walls of the Big Airplane Company where I've been employed for the last 22 years. At this conference, I was able to “play with the big boys” so to speak, and I received confirmation that I was able to hold my own – outside my normal domain, rather easily (it's nice to know).

But it wasn't magic.

Rather, it's was a mixture of concrete disciplines born through a lot of years, that played together that provided a “visual synthesis” of information and ideas that the audience can look at after the fact to recall the experience.

Michiel Erickson Systems Thinking Conference Catch

So far, so good.

When all was said and done, one thing was brought to my attention that I found rather curious. Although the general reaction to my work at the Seattle Conference was highly positive,there were a few complaints...

“There's too many words”, someone wrote on the end of conference comments sheets. “We want the graphic recorder you hired last year, who gave a better performance”.

I had to laugh, because aside from the notion that I absolutely AM NOT a “performance artist”... I have to also state that “I work in aerospace, with engineers and technical experts, who hold their words very closely”.

While I observe that it's my “art” that gets the attention, its my belief that the “art” has to convey the meaning... or I've just wasted a lot of peoples time. So rather than “perform”, my personal emphasis has always been of understanding, tracking and depicting “the story”, “the data” and “the meaning” of what is being discussed in any session.

So YOU BETTER BELIEVE I'm going to get as many words, and their definitions as I possibly can.

Which leads to the next important question...

I'm often asked, “how did you get SO MUCH” information from that meeting/session or event I had just worked through, as people examine the many pages of pictures, notes and “paper snow” I generate?

I generally give them some generic answer, like, “well I was just getting down what I heard”... or maybe I just simply say, “this is what you said”... but it's becoming clear to me that there is a LOT more to it than that. I'd simply not thought in depth about it.

That is, until now. Now I'm beginning to “get” that I need to not only think about it more completely, but I also need to talk about it.

So lets establish a basic “context”.

Graphic Facilitation, Graphic Recording and Technical Visualization are about MUCH more than simply being able to draw. A lot of people draw. Children draw, artists of various strains draw. What distinguishes the kind of drawing that I do, and the drawings that these people do?

First, I'm doing it in real time (before their eyes).

To draw in real time, means I have to both hear, and interpret what is being said into some sort of meaningful image, data cluster, or other depiction that the speaker (and the audience coming after) can relate to.

Second, If there is any single “key” to what makes my work successful, its my own capacity to “actively listen” and reflect back to the speaker some visual representation of it has been spoken or discussed.

'm slowly discovering that I can't simply tell people, “well I'm just doing active listening”... and assume they know what I mean, any more than I can describe “interpreting” and visualizing.

So how do you explain the concept of Active Listening?

When people hear the word “Active”, it brings to mind various notions about “motion”. So what would that be, “Listening in motion”? Aerobic Listening? Maybe “Rabid” listening... I think “active listening” is really about “Conscious Listening”. It's about being “there” in the story, and not passive. Passive listening is like when you try to give instruction to someone while they're texting on their cell phone. You hear them say things like, “uh-huh” and “yes, I hear you”, but ask them a question, or to tell you after the fact what was going on, and they get stuck. Hearing, but not “getting” what is being discussed.

“Active Listening” is about bringing total awareness, focus and a responsive mind into play.

“Active Listening” is a key element of the graphic recorders and graphic facilitators skill set.

It helps me hear very clearly, and in this “hearing”, I'm finding myself doing a kind of real time data collection and image selection activity that makes what-ever it is that I draw coherent.

Without active listening, the drawing becomes very superficial and irrelevant (being a cocreated but otherwise random bit of entertainment, since you can only capture the surface elements), since it will have very little to do with the information, ideas, “the story” and above all the MEANING that the group of people present have been participating in.

It's pretty fundamental, that “the experience” and the “the visual story” produced to document the key ideas of the meeting or design session really need to “match up”...

So I've been asking myself, How do I explain how Active Listening actually works?

While on the one hand, it would seem blatantly obvious that if your in the meeting, your going to “listen”... I'm often amazed at how much information escapes people who are sitting right there taking it all in. I see a lot of distraction and boredom, or even in the case of an excited and engaged group, I find individuals asking questions and requiring re-explanations of ideas already clearly stated.

I often find – in those situations that my emerging drawing will already contain the answer, and the presenter or consultant will begin pointing at the picture and say something like, well remember when I was talking about – this or that aspect, and I said... (blah blah blah) well here it is right here.

So it seems that active listening isn't so obvious as I'd thought. It may be that I've developed an unconscious discipline that needs to have words put around it.

So what are those words?

I'm thinking that the essence of Active Listening is about being on the lookout for key “triggers”.

Triggers are those attention grabbers I've conditioned myself over time to be on the look out for. They are words or phrases that are a warning... PAY ATTENTION, we're going to deliver very specific information NOW!

Biggest thing about Active listening is “grabbing the NOW”

Now for me LISTS of Key triggers:

Putting things in order

While I don't tend to process information in a linear manner (tending instead, to start in the middle and then work out in all directions, linking and connecting ideas as they randomly emerge), there does come a point in the process where you do have to start structuring what you are hearing.

- I do have to begin to figure out how this story “flows”... what comes first, what comes next, what key conclusions are, what benefits there are. (“Where's the money” being a big one).

- Free Association is a big tool for me

Techniques that help:


Active Listening driven (responsive) drawing is done by feel!

Have you ever done that exercise where your friends draw a squiggly line on a chalk board, and you come along to turn it into a picture? Drawing in front of people is kind of like that... Only your feelings arising from what you hear, start to suggest things – that if you act on them, first form lines, then suggest shapes, suggest motion, turning into pictures.

Let your imagination lead you into it. It's not about logic.

Your intuition then becomes your trusted friend since – in this situation, if you over intellectualize (analyze) you miss the obvious.

BUT IF YOU MUST... well here's the logical approach:

Draw something, anything! (this is the “SHOW IT” principle)

While what I said about capturing the important WORDS is true (especially to technical, or legally oriented people, making pictures of something that's been described is also essential to help package big ideas into a compact and clear thought.

Try at first to simply construct your drawings to capture ideas in a “thought by thought” fashion. You can begin to link those individual images into an integrated collage or map later in the process.

This is where Structural Visualization will help you.

Make sure PEOPLE are in the center of it. Everything we do, design, make decisions about and otherwise interact with are ultimately about people. Get good at drawing people (note: this is where cartoon art is truly helpful.

Cartoons tend to happen quickly (important when you are moving fast), they tend to capture the body language and emotional expressiveness of the “toon” person, and they tunnel under the surface of the obvious, into that sub-domain where all the really “stupid stuff” happens (emotion, politics) where “fear and control run rampant.

Capture and Cluster

Things that go together, are drawn together, usually in some form of “cluster diagram” - A mind map is a great way to start. (Remember, one of the strengths of visualization is in how well they hold information in context.

Focus and clarify

This is where I will ask clarifying questions (usually when I'm in Graphic Facilitator mode). I will also propose different ways to depict something that is just described


When I work, most people are blown away by the drawings. They react as if they've seen some kind of magic, where there is a kind of sleight of hand thing happening, since they see the color or the flow of a picture and they become quite distracted by the “artsy” aspects of it all.

What I want is for the participants to “see” the story they've just experienced. I want them to REMEMBER, read, and connect viscerally to the “data” that lives in little ideas or concept clusters throughout the drawing. I want them to REMEMBER the important Elements, Ideas and Decisions.

And I want them to leave the meeting wanting to DO something active toward creating or developing those elements, ideas and decisions that will take their work, profession or business the next steps along its way.

That doesn't happen if they are merely “entertained”. It doesn't happen if I merely “doodle”. It only happens when I actively engage, and actively listen.

Hopefully this explanation can help you further develop your own active listening skills, and apply it (both the power of it as well as the clarity of it) to the work YOU do.

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Michael Erickson
Michael Erickson
Visual Practitioner in the Aerospace Business living with his wife, son, assorted creatures in Everett, WA.
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