How to Listen Deeply: A Guide for Organizations

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America is in the midst of a human rights crisis. In this country and around the world, people are struggling to come to terms with the longstanding injustice and inequality that have been so painfully exposed since the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others.

The reckoning began as an anguished moral outcry against racism and police brutality, then swelled to encompass the broader racial inequities that still persist in our society. Traumatized by the horror of continuing police killings and by a pandemic that disproportionately ravages communities of color, people are hurting—particularly people of color.

The NeuroLeadership Institute has written about how the coronavirus crisis has opened deep fissures in our sense of autonomycertainty, and social connection, three of the five social domains in which humans are particularly vulnerable. Now, with racial injustice so roughly laid bare, employees are experiencing a painful rupture in their sense of fairness as well.

Organizations have responded to this hurt and anger by proclaiming solidarity with the movement for racial justice and by pledging to do more to fight systemic racism, both within their own ranks and in society at large. But achieving real change will take time. So what can organizations do in the meantime to support a beleaguered workforce tired of seeing their experience disregarded?

As we laid out in an earlier post, the answer is to listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly. It all starts with listening. While it’s not possible to erase inequity overnight, listening can assuage deep feelings of unfairness by making employees feel completely heard and understood. More importantly, by helping organizations understand how their work cultures affect employees, listening deeply can help define what changes are needed.

For organizations ready to listen, the most powerful tool available is the listening circle, a session where employees are invited to speak, one at a time, about whatever’s on their minds while others listen with empathy, with minimal judgment, and work hard to understand. People are free to speak about whatever it is they want heard by leaders and others, including their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about equity, belonging, inclusion, race, and other issues relating to the workplace.

Listening circles are happening in organizations in the U.S. and across the globe, some going tremendously well and others failing fast. Creating the space for this kind of experience isn’t easy. Here are four critical steps to getting it right.

Create psychological safety

A listening circle is different from a focus group, a town hall session, or a survey. It is an experience where people share quite personal, difficult stories about their life experiences, beliefs, and observations. Particularly, but not limited to, people of color who may feel that they have not had a voice until now.

Listening circles work only if people speak from the heart, and people speak from the heart only if they feel safe enough to be vulnerable. That’s why it’s critical to foster an environment of “psychological safety”—the confidence that we can freely express our innermost feelings, thoughts, and concerns without worrying that we’ll be embarrassed, shamed, or rejected.

If employees hesitate to speak up because they’re worried they’ll be judged, the circle is not psychologically safe. True psychological safety in this sense is the polar opposite of Twitter, the blogosphere, and some so-called “safe spaces” on campus—minefields where any expression of nonconforming ideas is shamed and punished. So long as their comments don’t exclude or marginalize others, employees should feel secure being their full selves, taking risks, and expressing thoughts that may seem clumsy or awkward—speaking candidly about their experiences, perceptions, fears, and mistakes.

In addition to a climate of openness and non-judgment, an effective listening circle also meets other criteria:

  • A right-sized group where people have time to speak up and be heard
  • A dynamic in which employees are invited to speak, but no one is expected or obligated to share merely because they’re a person of color or because they hold a certain position within the organization
  • An understanding that it’s not the job of employees of color to educate white employees—and that if they choose to do so, leaders should acknowledge them for it
  • A bubble of confidentiality in which employees feel confident that nothing they say will be shared
  • A blanket of trust in which everyone feels valued, respected, and included, knowing that whatever they say will be heard with empathy and compassion
  • A clear set of guidelines about all the above, made explicit for everyone involved

With these in place, let’s look at what it takes as an individual to listen deeply during one of these experiences, which tend to happen these days on a platform such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Webex.

Listen to understand

A typical conversation requires us not just to listen but also to reply, considering what our interlocutor says and responding with our own thoughts and ideas.

Deep listening is different. A listening circle is not a dialogue, and leaders don’t respond to employees’ experiences by sharing their reactions. Rather, listening circles are avenues for one-way communication, where people express what’s on their minds and others simply listen.

Listening circles are inspired by Native American councils, traditional tribal ceremonies in which community members would sit in a circle and pass around an eagle feather, talking stick, or other sacred totem to indicate whose turn it was to speak. Just as King Arthur convened his knights around a round table because a round table has no head, the shape of a listening circle signals that everyone present holds equal status.

The feather’s trajectory as it’s passed around the circle defines the structure of the discussion: People speak one at a time, feather in hand, while others remain silent and listen without interrupting. People don’t comment on what others say. Everyone has the chance to speak but no one is obligated, and if someone prefers to remain silent they simply pass the feather along. The session is over when everyone who wishes to speak has been heard.

Listening to understand is just as important today as it was in those ancient tribal councils. Now, as then, deep listening means listening not to respond, but strictly to learn. As former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano once put it:

“I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique. I wasn’t listening to object. I wasn’t listening to convince. I was listening solely for comprehension.”

Practice perspective-taking

Deep listening means transcending the limits of our own perspective in order to truly understand and empathize with another person’s thoughts and feelings—a process known as “perspective-taking.”

Perspective-taking helps build relationships, creates a shared understanding, improves the sense of connectedness among team members. It’s also been shown to improve conflict resolution and negotiation and decrease prejudice and stereotyping.

But perspective-taking is hard—and being in a position of power makes it even harder. “Because they’re higher in the organizational hierarchy, leaders are often removed from the everyday vulnerabilities faced by their employees,” explains Kamila Sip, NLI’s Senior Director of Neuroscience Research. “Part of listening to employees means understanding the cognitive impact this structural power has on how they perceive others—especially those below them on the organizational and societal ladder.”

Perspective taking means suspending our own frame of reference so we can see the world through another’s eyes. But overriding the way we usually listen and suppressing the skepticism we typically apply to what we hear demands intentionality, effort, and self-regulation. “Our way of thinking and processing reality is colored by a host of unconscious biases, we often project and assume what others think and need,” explains Sip.

That’s why deep listening means responding, at most, by restating what we hear to confirm that we understand or asking open-ended questions motivated solely by empathy and compassion. It means not assuming we know how someone feels, and not filtering the speaker’s experience through the lens of our own experiences. In the end, it means quieting internal judgments so we can be more fully open.

Listen with a growth mindset

Of course, listening isn’t enough. Organizations must follow listening with bold action that achieves real change—and leaders should quickly communicate what those changes will be in order to provide certainty to employees about what they can expect.

All this requires humility and a growth mindset. For leaders and employees alike, deep listening will mean finding the strength to receive difficult feedback graciously, especially if what they hear is that the state of affairs within their organization is not as irreproachable as they once thought.

Growth mindset means focusing not on proving yourself, but improving yourself. A listening circle is not a press conference for leaders to respond to grievances by pointing out that the organization is already doing more than people realize, or to remind employees that these things take time.

Rather, leaders should focus first on learning and understanding, then on reimagining—not with guilt about past blunders, but with hope and resolve, knowing that organizations, like people, can leverage difficult feedback to learn, change, and grow into something better than what they were before.

A listening circle is a time for everyone to listen and learn—leaders and employees both, white people and people of color alike—knowing that true equality will require the entire organization to unite widely and act boldly around shared goals. By listening deeply, uniting widely, and acting boldly, organizations can transform this crisis into a movement that ushers in real and lasting change.

Authors: Jay Dixit , Dr. David Rock , Barbara Steel