Blind spots, deep listening and myelination

- 220630

For many of us, the opposite of talking isn’t listening, it's waiting.’

This quote I came across in Dan Pink’s book yesterday could not have shown up in a more timely manner.

Because you see, only a few days ago, I caught myself in a blind spot.

I’m sure I have plenty of them, but this one I spotted. In a meeting with a new client, I was asked a question and quickly answered it, only to realise a few hours later that my answer didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the best answer to the question. I took a moment and emailed to retract my earlier opinion.

In my case, the blind spot was caused by two factors:

First, as hinted in the quote at the top, I didn’t listen as fully as I should have. Even worse, I didn’t pause to consider my answer when I offered my opinion.

I’m a consultant, so of course, I get asked for my point of view regularly. But I’ve learned better than to share too quickly. I find that my mind’s ‘default mode’ - going for the most pertinent information fast - isn’t generally the right thing for the room or the conversation. Furthermore, the meeting had started late; there was a time crunch. Oh that time pressure! I’m know that I'm not my best, most brilliant self when my eye is not on the client but on the clock.

But there’s more. I realised I have a ‘default mode’ of thinking and strategising that is well-honed, and specific to my area of business, namely, in the fashion and luxury industry.

And here’s what I found out:

The more skilled we are, the more we’re used to doing things according to how it's done in our company, or our industry, the less likely we are to be stepping into conversations with a fresh perspective.

We walk into meetings with a knowing attitude. This wouldn’t be the end of the world if we were all better listeners and more present with what is actually being said or shared by others.

So much of our listening time is actually not listening but waiting to tell people what we think, push the well-formed opinion or arguments we have, what we know.

Is it always relevant?

Well, how could it be, if we’re not listening, right? I’m sure you know what I mean.


When we start working on a project or get into a new industry, or a new role, of course it’s crucial to get to know the tools, and learn the mechanics, right? Especially if we want to do a good job.

We get to know the ins and outs of the company, understand what is expected of us, how to deliver, what success looks like for us and those around us (below, above, etc). Also important is to get to know the industry itself:

How are things done around here?

How do we need to show up to take our rightful place in this system?

So we learn the moves! We put in the hours, the days and even years bettering ourselves, so we become proficient at our work. We do - or work towards - our 10,000 hours.

As we gain experience, we move up, perhaps we get promoted and earn more and more money. The training goes on, with each echelon climbed, we get rewarded for how we master the form, the structure, and get the work done.

The more we know, the easier things get, and we learn shortcuts, we get to things faster. It’s like muscle memory: repeating tasks brings us to the right answers faster.

However useful this may be, there is a trap in focusing solely on what we already know.

The more we repeat an action, the more we think the same thoughts, the more our brains get rewired to think this way, and not another.

This physiological process, a fascinating one, is called myelination. Think of it as the brain’s method to insulate the neuronal axons (axons are the cable transmissions between neurons, a 7th of the width of a hair), and this creates a super fast connection that allows electrical impulses to be transmitted quickly and efficiently to the nerve cells.

You may have heard this saying: neurons that fire together, wire together. Well basically the more myelin we have, the more preferentially the neurons will fire. That’s why we tend to think certain thoughts very often.

Next time you hear a repeated thought in your mind, think: “Oh, there’s lots of myelin around that.”

This process is fabulous when you want to learn something new, and the emerging field of neuroplasticity has been a game-changer: the reality is we can always learn to rewire our brains.

The dark side of this is the more we’ve fired these neurons together, the more biased we can be. Following the well-oiled grooves of our neural highways, our brains take us to the default answer.

“I know this, I’ve done this so many times.”

We answer fast, our mind’s connections firing off, doing their job. But they fire off preferentially.

And that’s where we can find our blind spots.

Why do you think it’s so hard to let go of preconceived notions; to come into a meeting with a fresh perspective?

We go back to what we know, not just because we know it, but because we are wired to do so.


My clients want great results, but do they want my cookie-cutter methods, or answers? If I were them, I certainly wouldn’t. But like everyone else, having honed my skills in a specific industry niche for many years, I also go to the default too often. And that’s what I spotted the other day.

The work suggested by Robert McKee (not just in the quote above but what I heard him explain in his seminar) is to first learn to master the form. And then recognise when structure, skills or method, serves us, and when we need to let it go and free ourselves to invent something new or bespoke, to fit the content, the ideas, the purpose.

Sometimes we have to let go of what we know and ignore the industry norms. We have to leave all that behind to pave a path that is uniquely ours, designed to serve our goals, our people.

Shortly after catching that blind spot of mine, I emailed my client to apologise and correct the earlier opinion.

In so many ways, I am a work in progress. But I’m pretty excited to be able to uncover when I am biased, when I am in ‘default mode’.

I have a path to follow. In order to do that well, I must: pay attention, cultivate presence, listen actively, and above all, pause before I answer.

I hope this serves you too.

Until next time.