Listening and the imagination gap

in one earI recently heard a TED talk by Intel engineer Tony Salvador. He described the “imagination gap” in listening, which he defined as the difference between what we can imagine and what we hear.

We all bring biases and preconceptions to conversations. When the other person says something that doesn’t fit, we experience cognitive dissonance. Our response can be to hear what fits with our beliefs and ignore what doesn’t.

For example, Salvador told about working on a team to promote education in Vietnam. In his mind, education was about getting a job. For his partners, he realized that it was about being part of a global community that uses education as a marker of success. They were having different conversations without understanding each other’s viewpoints.

A few years ago I experienced the same thing. Our team was designing an online training course for employees. One supervisor pointed out that many of his employees work in remote locations and have no access to computers, either at work or at home. We were talking about completion dates and tracking while he was talking about access and alternative delivery options. Our team really didn’t hear his concern that our plan might not work for everyone.

Salvador proposed that we can reduce cognitive dissonance in a different way – by increasing our ability to imagine the other person’s viewpoint. To close the imagination gap, we need to aim for some very difficult goals:

  • Start every conversation fresh without preconceived biases
  • Listen to ideas that we may not like and hold them long enough to understand the other person’s viewpoint
  • Listen for things that aren’t said and that we don’t know to listen for

He challenged his IT audience with some key questions that work in higher ed as well:  Who are we going to listen to? How are we going to listen to them? And most important, will we have the collective humility to be vulnerable enough to struggle with differences and challenges so that we can build our future together?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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