How to Focus When You Are Listening

How to Focus When You are Listening

In this video and article:
The #1 biggest pitfall that gets in the way of truly listening

3 areas of awareness to make you a better listener

⬜ The secret sauce to learning any complex skill.

When I led Visual Listening live, I kicked off the virtual workshop asking, "What do you want to get out of the day?"

Two answers topped the list:

  • How do I focus when I am listening? 
  • How do I hold everything in my head? 

I definitely answered both of these questions over the course of the day, but I created this video to draw a shorter and more direct line.


☝️ Watch the video above for the full story, or read the text below for an abridged version. 👇

1 | You are not a recording device

So many, too many people fall into this trap of treating themselves like a recording device when they listen.

They are listening for quantity.

Here’s a symptom of this. See if you relate to it.

Image of young woman in foreground, facing down concentrating and taking notes by hand in a note book. In the background, two classmates are looking up facing the teacher. 

You were the star student (or maybe a struggling one) and when a lecture started, you opened up your notebook or laptop and your head turned down. 

You took pages and pages of notes.

But when you went back to that notebook, or you opened up that file, there was no real sense of personal experience or actual learning or understanding.

You treated yourself like a recording device, instead of a glorious human being who is there to learn. There to make meaning.


If you relate to that, this can be tricky to unlearn, because we equate good notetaking with quantity. But when you are treating yourself like a recording device, you are listening for every little detail, getting all the phrasing exact, every point captured.

When you do so, you're losing the opportunity to:

  • stop and truly listen
  • be present as a unique human being
  • listen for the main points
  • let what you are hearing sink in.
  • make connections and see patterns
  • really process and understanding what you're hearing

Thus no connection to words on the notebook page or in the file.

“Wow, I captured a lot. But what did I learn?”

Avoid the recording device trap
Happily, we all have recording devices in our pockets, our computers. Let those recording devices do their job.

This trap is set both when you are listening for yourself and when you listen to serve a group of people. In roles as facilitators, graphic recorders, graphic facilitators, we feel the pressure of the profession.

Yes, in The Graphic Facilitator's Guide, a major mantra is “Content is King.”

Capturing content and reflect the group’s experience is vital, but not to the sacrifice of seeing patterns, making connections and helping that group make new meaning.

Show up as the unique, complex, and glorious human that you are.

2 | Be aware of your "acoustics"

Anthony Weeks, The Public Listener, joined me in conversation that is a bonus video in Visual Listening.

Anthony brought up acoustics.

Before our confab, I had a narrow view of acoustics as being more mechanical. Designing spaces where sound doesn’t bounce around, like the perfect concert hall.

I really treasured about this conversation with Anthony and how he looks at acoustics much more broadly, and more deeply. He introduced me to both external and internal acoustics. You’ll have to join Visual Listening for the full, organic conversation with Anthony, and for the workshop video archive that captures many more aspects of this.

Here I am borrowing a page from the Visual Listening work/sketchbook to hit on highlights:

External Environment | Blue

  • Size of room
  • Hard and soft surfaces (are sounds being absorbed or bouncing around?)
  • Distance from speaker(s)
  • Ability to see as well as hear
  • Ambient sounds
  • Quality of materials you are using to draw with/draw on
  • Experience with materials

As a graphic facilitator, I’ve worked in too many “mushroom farms.”

Those big hotel ballrooms with no windows, no natural light. Often, the room is far larger than the size of the group needs.

I arrive early to scope out the space, working with my clients and partner facilitators to move furniture, divide the space, block ambient noises; all to improve the acoustics.

These actions improve both my ability to excel in my role, and for all of the participants to better hear and understand each other. 

Your Anatomy | Red

  • Auditory acuity

  • Visual acuity

  • Neurology/Sensory Processing

  • Physical comfort like posture

  • Energy level

The way my brain is wired, I can’t filter anything out. I hear EVERYTHING. Since that’s my how I am wired, I work to eliminate or mitigate any extra sound.

On client projects, I often can't control the extraneous noises. So, I manage my energy and environment before and after the live sessions. Lots of quiet and rest, and declining invites to join the team for meals in noisy restaurants. 

Very early in dating my now husband, I noticed him sizing up the noise when we entered a restaurant and scoping out the quietest spot for me. Yep, he is a keeper.

Internal Acoustics | Green

Your relationship to:

  • The Objective - How personally interested or aligned am I WHY I am listening and what I am listening FOR?

  • The Content/Topic - WHAT am I listening to? Is the content itself easier or harder to understand? 

  • The Individuals/Group you are listening to - WHO is speaking, who has a voice in this room, are people truly listening to each other? 

After 23 years as a graphic facilitator, I thrive on variety, and don’t go into a new project and client with assumptions about their industry or organizational culture. I stay curious and see what transpires that fits with my previous experience, and what breaks known patterns.

Still, I’m going to be far more tuned in with entrepreneurs talking strategy or educators, than a room full of financial compliance officers. 

In the event I worked with latter, it was a delight to see how much they loved geeking out with each other, but the day felt 3x longer. I had to listen extra carefully because of so much jargon and I didn’t have much familiar context to connect to.

A huge part of internal acoustics has to do with cultural context, cultural safety, and power dynamics.

  • What is your position?
  • Who holds privilege and who lacks privilege?
  • What are the power dynamics?
  • How much or how little do you personally identify to the speaker or the group?


What happens when you assume?
Our brains are pattern finding machines. Working with previous patterns does a whole heck of a lot for us. We use those patterns, our experiences, to think faster and to make connections more quickly

It also builds in a whole lot of assumptions.

When I was a contractor as a baby graphic facilitator circa 1997, a colleague said, “Well, you know what happens when you assume.”

No, I don’t.

This was clearly a known thing, taken from their knowing tone, and I did not know it.

“You make an ASS of U and ME."

! ! !

We are pattern making machines.

We are assumption making machines.

The big thing here is just to step back, get a little bit of distance, and be aware of your assumptions.

We all got ‘em. Good to notice what you are relying on from previous experience. Is that experience serving you well now?

I don't want to go into a meeting thinking, “Oh, I've got this down. I've been in this kind of meeting two dozen times before I know exactly how it's going to go.”

When we do that, we're listening to reinforce the patterns of previous experience, instead of truly being present in the moment. We are filtering out what doesn’t fit into what we already know.


Reduce distractions
It is worth making this assumption explicit. All I have written above is about how to tune in.

The other side of that coin is tuning out all that distracts you from being present.

  • muting devices
  • shutting off notifications
  • letting those around you know you need to focus
  • closing doors or finding a quiet space to listen
  • clearing your desk or space to remove “mental debris” from other tasks
  • noticing and acknowledging your current feelings

 And my favorite --

  • creating a habit of transitioning from one focus to the next

This can be a pause, eyes closed, to reset. Or a physical break to move your body. 

Mine is dorky.

I thank my brain.

This habit started from laying in bed at night, mind racing, and me beating myself up about it. One night, I thought to myself,

“Thank you, Brain. You did a lot of hard work today. Now you can rest.”

And it FRIGGIN worked.

So, the gratitude and pep talks increased. Between tasks, “High five. Good work. Now onto the next task.”

And off-task thoughts pop-up, which is constantly, “Yep, you’re right. We’ll think about that later."

I jot down that thought and get back on task. 


Give yourself a distraction-catcher.  Always, always get those thoughts out and captured. 


3 | Listening is a  learnable and practicable skill.

Listening is a developed skill. The more you practice the better you become.

You go far in honing your listening skills with points 1 and 2.

1 | You are not a recording device is that vital mindset shift that helps you be present as the glorious human you are.

2 |  Awareness of your “acoustics” gets you prepped and primed to tune in more clearly.


Next let's looks at listening's learnability. 

(☝️ Stop and say that sentence out loud. Super fun.)


In the upcoming article How to Learn Visual Thinking (click to sign up for my newsletter to get notified)

Yes, I want to be notified

I describe all the simultaneous thoughts while you are listening, thinking, and drawing as a visual thinker. These thoughts apply when you're working solo, with/for a group, and at an scale or with any medium. 

As you hear a new point, you’re thinking:

  • Is this idea worth capturing? Does it fit into this drawing?
  • How do I want to distill this idea in words?
  • How should I write this idea down (penmanship, case, style)?
  • What is the size of this idea?
  • What color should it be?
  • How does it relate to other things on the page?
  • Where am I putting this on the page?
  • Do I need to visually connect it to other ideas in the drawing?
  • Would imagery (a diagram, sketch, or icon) improve understanding of the idea?


Intense, right?!

Absolutely. For each one of these bullet points, there are countless choices.

It can be daunting. Especially all those countless choices ALL AT ONCE.

The secret sauce is learning and practicing each of the questions above and their choices.

  1. Break visual thinking, and here specifically visual listening, into learnable pieces.
  2. Learn your choices within each piece.
  3. Practice the heck out of each piece.
  4. Put the pieces back together.


When you put all pieces back together, the practiced ones have become second nature. They take nearly no time, no mental energy. That frees up mental energy to focus on the others choices.

I loooooooooooooove tackling step 1 and teaching step 2. Stick with me to make things so much easier and faster for you.

It’s your job to do step 3 and 4.

For example, in Visual Listening we dove deep into:

  • How does this new point relate to other things on the page?


Tune into Spatial Cues
Embedded in language are spatial cues. These are the natural transitions when a new speaker replies to the previous speaker in conversation. A good presenter peppers their talk with these transitions to guide listeners through their talk.

When you learn these cues and actively tune into them, they tell you exactly how a new point fits in with the previous one.

I am super spatial human. Listening in this way was already second nature. Being attuned to these transitional cues are the biggest reason I am able to organize what I hear in real time. (That and, you know, a lifetime of practice…)

Starting in The Agerbeck Method’s second module, PROXIMITY, I stepped outside of my own engrained experience to figure out how the heck to make this learnable. Thus, the 10 spatial cues were born. In Visual Listening, I made them more concrete renaming them “listening keys.”

Here are the 10 keys to unlock your listening: 

"I agree with her. I had a similar idea" 

"I have a different approach..." 

Building On
"To take that idea further..." 

"Moving onto our next item..." 

Leveling up
"To take the 10,000 foot view..." 

Diving Deep
"Let's get into the nuts and bolts of this..." 

Switching Gears
"To change topics entirely..." 

"Like I have said..." 

"These steps resulted in..." 

"To wrap this conversation up..." 

👉 Start tuning into these 10 keys now and notice how prevalent and relevant they are. 
Want to turbo charge learning to listen in this way? Join me in Visual Listening.

Throughout Visual Listening, we talked through 10 types of relationships between ideas and then explicitly through how to visually represent each relationship with:

  • How do I want to distill this idea in words?EXPRESS/DISTILL
  • Where am I putting this on the page?
  • What is the size of this idea?
  • What color should it be?
  • Do I need to visually connect it to other ideas in the drawing?

We started off the virtual workshop mapping these 5 questions to our hand:

For each one of the 10 keys, we talked through how to SHAPE each one.



That's Step 3. Practice, practice, practice.

I especially recommend isolating each set of choices in your practice to get farther and faster with each one.

I.e. practice distilling what you hear by listening and only writing down text. Free yourself of all the other choices. No mental energy used for color, size, placement, connections, etc..


You are dedicating all your focus to practice that one set of choices more completely.

When you return to Step 4, how you distill what you hear will come to you faster and more easily. You don’t have to think about distilling as explicitly in the moment. That makes room for the other choices and for truly listening to make meaning for yourself and/or the groups you work with.

The more pieces you practice,  the more present you can be. The more present you are, the better listener you can be. 


THIS is how you fit so much in your head at once.


Visual thinking pioneer Brandy Agerbeck writes, speaks and teaches on the power of drawing as your best thinking tool. Learn more at

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