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Jamie Woolf and Heidi Rosenfelder, former employees of Pixar Animation Studios and founders of CreativityPartners
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Podcast Episode 120: how to think and listen like the team at pixar animation Heidi Rosenfelder Jamie Woolf

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Oscar Trimboli interviews Jamie Woolf and Heidi Rosenfelder, former employees of Pixar Animation Studios and founders of CreativityPartners, discussing the importance of listening in building connections and fostering innovation.

Woolf and Rosenfelder emphasize the need to slow down the questioning process and ask better, more meaningful questions.

They highlight the role of playback, curiosity, and emotional awareness in effective listening.

The conversation touches on creating a safe and inclusive environment for all voices to be heard, as well as the impact of power dynamics on listening.

Learn about advanced listening techniques including

  •  The playback
  •  Slowing down the process
  •  The importance of plussing
  •  The role of the environment
  •  Power dynamics




00: 00 Jamie Woolf

Slowing down the questioning process. Where’s this question coming from? Is the question truly coming from curiosity, or are you asking the question because it sounds like a good question?

Really taking a beat and going into yourself to ask,

“What do I really want to know?

What do I not yet know?

And what kind of question would allow me to deepen my connection?”

With that as the lens, we tend to ask better questions.

00:51 Oscar Trimboli

Today’s discussion is a little bit different, rather than me interviewing one other person, I’m actually interviewing two people. So you get used to their voices, I’ve asked them to introduce themselves.

01:04 Jamie Woolf

I’m Jamie Woolf, and formerly the Director of Culture and Learning at Pixar Animation Studios, currently the Founder of CreativityPartners.

01:14 Heidi Rosenfelder

And I’m Heidi Rosenfelder, Co-founder of CreativityPartners, formerly the Senior Manager for Leadership Development at Pixar Animation Studios.

01:22 Oscar Trimboli

What’s the cost of not listening?

01:25 Heidi Rosenfelder

The lack of connection, or we’re missing out on making connections with people if we don’t listen. We’re wasting time by not listening.

Time is a factor in the organizational context.

We have so much confusion if we’re not listening to each other. We’re not clarifying expectations.

In the filmmaking context if we’re not listening to each other’s notes that we have for each other’s stories, wee might proceed on the completely wrong direction with a film being innovative.

If we don’t listen to each other’s stories and take risks with our storytelling, we’re going to limit ourselves and each other.

02:02 Oscar Trimboli

In the filmmaking context, you reference to a waste of time and a lack of innovation. We’re taught how to make movies. We have traditions that go back for a long time around storytelling, yet we don’t have the same traditions when it comes to explaining how to listen. Heidi, how have you taught others how to listen?

02:24 Heidi Rosenfelder

For many years, Jamie and I taught a class on the art of listening.

We start out really simple by teaching people how to do a playback of what other people are saying.

It sounds so simple, but it’s such an impactful tool to show the other person that you’ve been heard.

It sounds like what you’re saying, Oscar, is you want to hear more about listening, and how we taught that.

Even just that simple playback can really put people at ease and make them feel like, “Oh, you heard me. You’re in it with me together.”

Then we are teaching three levels of listening.

Level one, the focus is on us, and it’s just about me right now. When we’re listening in a work context at level one, listening usually doesn’t help to create connection. The focus is only on me as the listener at level one.

Level two, the focus shifts to you, Oscar. What are you all about? I’m curious about you. The light is on you, and I want to find out any that has to do with you.

In that level, I’m paying attention to your body language. I’m paying attention to any feelings that I’m sensing from you, and I’m also paying attention to the facts that I know about you that, you’ve shared with me. So, I’m listening at all three contexts, facts, emotions, and body language.


Then I’m also trying to listen at level three, which I already alluded to.

So, that’s what we’re teaching people to think about. What’s not being said right now? What are we not saying in this moment that’s also here in the room? So, that’s the level-three listening that we teach people as well.

03:54 Heidi Rosenfelder

Then we help them find powerful questions and we do a fishbowl exercise, which is always the most powerful part of the class, where they practice listening to one problem that somebody brings into the room, and they practice asking powerful questions, open-ended questions.

Most of the time, people go right to yes and no questions.

It’s nice to highlight how that’s so automatic and how we as humans want to go to problem-solving right away, before we lean into curiosity, which is the headline of the whole class, is leaning into curiosity.

Being present to the person that’s sitting across from you, or the group that’s in the room together.

04:35 Oscar Trimboli

Is there a moment where you saw somebody had an aHa moment?

04:40 Heidi Rosenfelder

We’re doing a lot of coaching of directors.

It’s a very stressful job, and you’re under a lot of pressure, and you’re getting notes left and right.

To help a director be present in that moment to a note that they’re getting and still be able to ask a question was a breakthrough to not rush forward to the next solution that they might have in mind, but to do a little playback with whoever gives them the note. Just leaning into full curiosity even under high stress was a breakthrough.

05:14 Jamie Woolf

Yeah. The stories that I was thinking of, the things that we also do is facilitate conflict.

We might have two people that are at an impasse, and they’ve been trying to get through a rough patch, work together more collaboratively, and it’s just not working.

We talk to each of them individually and then we bring them together.


What happens in the room is we slow … It’s almost like a movie that we put into slow motion, and we take timeouts and we pause to ensure that the other person is listening.

Some of the things that we do to ensure that is,

“What’s your understanding of what was said, and how does this land for you?”

Slowing the process down because we’re so used to, either rebutting or sharing my story.

So, what we do in slowing down the film a little bit, we allow people to really step in the other person’s shoes by reiterating their understanding of what was said. Only after the person who has spoken feels understood, feels that the person is getting it, does that person start to talk.

06:36 Jamie Woolf

By facilitating those conversations, I think there’s huge aHas.

Aside from getting through the gridlock, and often deepening the connection and the understanding, we find that the class as well, just slowing down the questioning process.

Where’s this question coming from?

Is the question truly coming from curiosity, or are you asking the question because it sounds like a good question?

Really taking a beat and going into yourself to ask,

“What do I really want to know?

What do I not yet know? And what kind of question would allow me to deepen my connection? With that as the lens, “I want to deepen my connection with this person,” we tend to ask better questions.

07:20 Oscar Trimboli

Jamie, just expanding there, we often think about questions that either advance our position, our opinion, our perspective, our outcome, and yet, to pause, to be genuinely curious, to explore a little bit further, not just what’s been said, yet what hasn’t been said,

how do you help the people you’ve worked with to do that?

07:51 Jamie Woolf

At Pixar, there’s a tendency to be in rooms where the stakes are high and so the ego gets activated, and, “I want to be the smartest person in the room. I want to be heard. I’m going to figure out when that person’s sentence is trailing off so that I can get my word in, and I’m going to be more attuned to that than listening to what the other person has said.”

What we do as facilitators in the room, we ask people, “Let’s take a beat. Let’s make sure we understand what that person just said.

” We have a concept at Pixar called plussing. How might you plus what that person said?

Rather than everyone’s saying a disjointed idea, let’s linger with this person’s idea.

Let’s make sure that we understand it. Now that we’re clear on what the person’s idea is, let’s figure out how to stay with that idea and plus it.

By plus it, we mean add to it.

Let’s fill out this idea before we quickly move on to my idea, to your idea.

09:00 Oscar Trimboli

What I’m fascinated about, is it’s easy to create a framework for people to listen for what’s not said in a paired conversation. How do you support leaders and hosts of meetings, where many people are present, to hear from voices that are not commonly heard from?

09:16 Jamie Woolf

One of the challenges in many rooms is you have people that are outward processors, and they’re extroverts, and there are people who are introverts, and they need to go deep in order to even figure out what they are thinking.

So, we found in especially story rooms, we had one director who was wondering why the same people were speaking up and then there are some people who are just staring at him like a deer in headlights.

We had been reading Susan Cain’s book about introversion.

She actually came to Pixar for a visit. What this director implemented was something so simple but so effective, which was, for a minute or even three minutes after he presented his pages, which are parts of the script, he would ask people to do a freewrite.

Just not talk at all just for one minute, for three minutes. Just write what you thought, what comes to mind? Lo and behold, the people who typically didn’t speak up were speaking up, sometimes first, sometimes second because they just needed that time.

Again, slowing down the pace of conversation so that everybody could gather their thoughts.

There’s a lot of research that shows that the first person who speaks, it’s called priming, sets the tone for the whole conversation.

So, another reason to do that, kind of freewrite is you’re going to have more creativity in the room when everyone individually gathers their thoughts rather than create a group think situation.

10:57 Oscar Trimboli

How have you noticed great leaders balance the power dynamic in the room so that everybody who wants to contribute will.

11:05 Jamie Woolf

At Pixar, we have something called the Braintrust, which is a group of people who have just seen a screening of our films and then give notes.

We found that the most powerful people in the room with the highest level of hierarchy were speaking first, and that was setting the tone, and was intimidating to people, no blame of anything that they did. Just by virtue of the level, their title and so forth.

So, what we did by way of experiment is to have the most powerful people in the room not speak for eight to 10 minutes, and it really shifted the conversation.

People who weren’t accustomed to speaking up felt that they had the space to speak up.

Then the other thing that we instituted, this was Ed Catmull’s idea, was to get a longer table in the room. That means that nobody is second tier. So, what we used to have is a smaller table and then you have the second row.

He made the investment to get this gigantic long table in the conference room so that everybody could fit around the table.

What that said, what that conveyed physically is that nobody is second tier. Those two things are things that leaders can do. You need to get creative about how to shake up the power in the room so that everybody’s participating.

12:50 Heidi Rosenfelder

One additional tool for a leader is to really lean into playback and curiosity.

Once they do speak is to then summarize what they’ve heard, and to really make sure that they’re modeling that.

There’s so much power in modeling, listening, because if you do that as a leader, other people in the room will do it as well.

Leaning into playback, I think is super important for a leader to turn down their power a little bit because it indicates that they heard, and they might even then add a question, amping up the curiosity after the playback that turns down the power volume.

Now, it has to be not cross-examination. It has to be some genuine, curious question.

13:38 Oscar Trimboli

Heidi, what gets in the way of people listening?

13:41 Heidi Rosenfelder

In the organizational context and what we experience at Pixar, always is just the pressure of time and the high stakes of filmmaking, movie production.

People’s minds are in a million different places. To remember in the moment when you’re just with this one person or with this one group,

“What am I here for, right now?   What’s present right now?”

Do not lose sight of that.

So, I think just the stress of the filmmaking production, it gets in the way of listening.

Our president here at the studio sometimes says, yes, for sure, a million things on his mind that, he really is mindful about the person who is in my office right now.

That’s their most important meeting of the day, “And I want to give them my full attention.” So, just being really mindful about that is really important. Stress and pressure of production is one of the biggest barriers.

14:36 Jamie Woolf

Heidi and I always feel that our listening skills go way up right after we teach our class.

What that says to us is that if you set an intention to listen, your listening will get better.

If I go into every conversation with the intention that I want to listen rather than be heard, it’s a very underrated skill.

I have to have that intention to listen, because I have to listen, as Heidi was saying, to the … I have to attend to the body language. I have to quiet all the distractions from the previous meeting I was in. I really listen to, not just the facts but the emotions of what’s being said.

It’s like a three-ring circus, listening. If I go in with a casualness about a conversation, it’s likely I won’t be a great listener.

But if I go into every conversation with the intention of being present and using all of my senses to listen well, we’d be a lot better off.

One thing that we often tell leaders is that we tend to veer into the logical in the workplace. We veer into the analytical because it feels safer, but if we are to be the most effective leaders we could be, we need to first build connection.

The way to do that is going toward the emotion, not away from the emotion.

So, if a leader notices some emotion showing up on somebody’s face, rather than ignoring it, maybe out of discomfort, embarrassment, to perhaps name it, like,

“I noticed something change in your face.

 Is there anything you want to ask?

Are you feeling … Are you doing okay?”

Listening is about connection. It goes back to what you initially asked, right?

If we want to avoid disconnection and amplify connection through listening, that means veering toward the emotion, not away from the emotion.

16:48 Oscar Trimboli

Wow. Where do you begin with this masterclass from Heidi and Jamie?

  • Is it the playback?
  • Is it slowing down the process?
  • Is it the role of the pause?
  • Is it plussing?
  • How do you build on rather than take away from an idea?
  • How do you move away from binary opposites to an option you may not have considered rather than debating A versus B?

Maybe there’s option C, D, E, and F that will evolve if we come from a place of genuine curiosity, to plus, to build on the idea.

Does the role of environment play? We heard how Ed used a table to completely change the dynamic of listening when everybody was a first-class citizen at the same table, and the role of emotion.

Are you like a firefighter who runs into the fire when it comes to emotion?

Do you dial in at that point to understand where that’s coming from for them, possibly for you, possibly something else?

I love the way Jamie talked about the importance of leaning into emotion rather than react or remove yourself from the emotion present in the room.

As ever, we want to listen to you. We’ve got three copies of the book, Creativity, Inc., an inspiring look at how creativity can and should be harnessed for business success by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull.

Now I want to hear from you with your thoughts.

What will you do differently when it comes to listening in groups?

How will you slow down a little bit, and how will you use the pause?

How will you plus, or did you take something else altogether away from this conversation with Heidi and Jamie?

We’ve got three copies of the book, Creativity, Inc, a behind the scenes story about creativity by the founder at Pixar, Ed Catmull.

Email with the subject Pixar and your reflections on this discussion between Jamie, Heidi and myself.

While researching for this conversation with Jamie and Heidi, I came across a Netflix series called Inside Pixar. You actually go into one of those rooms where the notes are being handed out as people are watching certain cuts on the movie.

Now, for listening all the way to the end, we’ve got a little bonus at the end just for you.

So, thanks for staying all the way along. If you listen all the way to the end, you’re going to hear the most powerful question I didn’t ask.  If you asked this question, notice the impact on the room.

I’m Oscar Trimboli, and along with the Deep Listening Ambassador community, we’re on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the workplace, and you’ve given us the greatest gift of all, you’ve listened to us.

Thanks for listening.

20:07 Oscar Trimboli

A process check, how are you finding the tempo? How are you finding the questions?

20:12 Heidi Rosenfelder

I love the process and the speed of how we’re moving along here, and I love the tactic that you just used in terms of checking the temperature in the room, which is such a wonderful way to help people shift to level three and move to the next, kind of experience in the room. So, I appreciate that as a tool as well. It’s great.

20:34 Oscar Trimboli

Thank you.

20:35 Jamie Woolf

Yeah, I agree. I love the stopping in the middle so that we could do any course correction.

Yeah, your questions make it feel like a conversation and it feels very natural.

I want to hear from you, too.

Are you getting what you need?

Is there anything that you could give us so that we give you the, kind of stories, the kinds of content that you’re looking for?

20:56 Oscar Trimboli

We’re warming up. That last story about the intersection of everything we’ve discussed up until that point has been a great build, plussing as we go along. So, thank you. What have you noticed about how I’m listening?

21:10 Jamie Woolf

There’s something about your body language that’s very quiet, that isn’t distracting, that shows complete connection. I know that on the podcast they’re not seeing you, but you make eye contact, somehow through this Zoom, and you keep your body very still, which I think is interesting.

You’re not nodding a lot, but you still convey that you’re present and not at all distracted, very much with us.

21:45 Heidi Rosenfelder

You’re also smiling, and in response to some of the answers, a physical facial expression that tells me that you heard what I just said, I feel heard through your listening.

You’re asking questions that are expansive and not narrowing the conversation. That’s another way that I appreciate your listening.

22:09 Oscar Trimboli

When you notice expansive.

22:11 Heidi Rosenfelder

It started, likely with what or how. So, that made me feel like it was an expansive question and not a narrow question.

22:19 Oscar Trimboli

We’ve got about 10 minutes remaining. Insert whatever name is appropriate here, whether it’s Susan Cain or Adam Grant. If they were listening to our conversation right now, they’d probably be screaming at me saying, “Oscar, you haven’t asked a really obvious question, because we’ve chatted to these folks, we’ve seen them in act. You missed the really big thing.”

22:42 Jamie Woolf

Yeah. Along those lines, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power in rooms and how that can feel stifling to people with less power.

Ed Catmull always asks, “How does the least powerful person in the room feel?”

That person should feel safe to speak up, safe to dissent. I think in organizations everywhere, the power dynamics need to be attended to in order for people to really feel confident enough to speak up, and able to listen openly without defensiveness or without pulling their authority.

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