Jul 062007

I want to pick up on something Ken Orr mentioned in his recent Trends Advisor essay on summer reading. He wrote briefly about research that has confirmed a human faculty theatre artists have exploited for a couple of thousand years, and which we can put to use in working together. In the theatre it’s the currency of daily work, the key to the iterative, collaborative rehearsal process used to make plays. In other kinds of team work we (my colleagues and I in Artful Making) call it “deep listening.”

Deep listening involves releasing your mind into empathy with the person who’s talking with you, treating the ideas you hear as if they were feelings you were taking in. When our mirror neurons replicate an activity, it means that the activity becomes our own: we are, as Ken pointed out, effectively doing what we’re seeing and hearing someone else do. Then, when it’s time to think about what we just saw or heard, we respond not only to what we saw and heard, but to our own similar activity. We may think what we like about someone else’s action or idea, but of course we’re going to notice that our own is important, and demands serious attention.

Plenty of smart people have noticed this about theatre and theatre audiences. They’ve reacted, starting with Plato, by arguing that a theatre is a dangerous place, dangerous to the public good, and ought to be suppressed. After all, if people in the audience are actually doing what’s going on up there ….

Plenty of audience members have thought the theatre experience important enough that no suppression of theatre, by whatever agency, has ever been more than marginally successful.

Deep listening means that we can treat the ideas of our team mate as our own, and use them as material for our next iteration on the theme. It means that we listen, not only with our intellect, but with our entire bodymind, or whole self. It means we can collaborate, and come up with something new under the sun.

Deep listening takes considerable practice on both sides. Learning to focus so entirely on a single input is simple, but it isn’t easy. Learning to release the inhibitions that protect us from running empathically amok is a bit less simple, no less difficult. Learning to release our body mind to experience the mirror neurons fully? that’s down right tough.

Not to mention that it can be mighty daunting to be the object of such serious, directed attention.

Lee Devin


Lee Devin

Lee Devin is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Business Technology Strategies practice. Lee's background in theatre brings a unique perspective to the challenges faced by IT managers and managers in general.


  One Response to “Mirror Neurons and Deep Listening”

  1. Lee’s “deep listening” gives a name to something that we all do subconsciously. We do it sometimes, not all the time. We also appreciate it when our colleagues do the same. But the name and his fascinating definition of what’s going on opens a nice new possibility, that we might learn to do this consciously.
    Thank you Lee. I think you have a trademark ability to help people experience wonderful Ahas, each one followed by a long and thoughtful Hmmmmm.

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