How to design a culture of listening - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

When asked to picture a leader, people tend to think of someone giving an inspiring speech in front of a crowd, or perhaps someone barking orders to a frenzied team. But real leadership often requires just the opposite: quiet, reflective listening. Listening helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. And it leads to advancement: listening skills are one of the ways people spot future leaders.

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, most of us can’t claim that we listen well consistently. In fact, forgetting is par for the course: we forget half to a third of all information within eight hours after hearing it for the first time. And despite the benefits of a listening culture, few companies encourage listening or reward dissent. At NOBL, many of our clients have asked us how to change this behaviour and develop a culture of listening at every level.

Listen on a deeper level

First, it’s critical to realise that not all listening is created equal. Most of the time, people listen for information — how will what is being said affect me? But a strategic listener goes deeper to build a connection with the person they’re listening to.

“I made a presentation today and it didn’t go over well.”
Level Response What it sounds like
1 Not listening (redirecting to self) “Oh, was that in the marketing meeting?
Yeah, I hate that meeting.”
2 Paraphrasing, clarifying (drawing the person out) “Oh! So sorry to hear it. What happened?”
Alt: “What made it bad?”
Alt: “Tell me more.”
3 Going below the surface (addressing the emotion
contained in the statement —
without immediately trying to change it)
“Wow, it sounds like you are feeling really disappointed —
and understandably so! I know how hard you worked on it.”


If you’re just starting to improve your listening skills — that is, moving to the second level — the first step is to make sure you’re truly understanding what the other person is saying. Try paraphrasing what you heard from the speaker, starting with a phrase such as, “So if I heard you correctly, what you just said was…”. If you find it hard to stay focused while listening, imagine you are going to have to repeat, from memory, the exact last sentence the person said.

Once you’ve mastered that skill, you can find more ideas from Julian Treasure, who discusses five ways to listen better in this brilliant video from TEDGlobal 2011. He warns us about “losing our listening” since we have so many distractions around us. As a result, we struggle to consciously listen, which leads to understanding. To counteract this, try beginning each day with three minutes of silence to “reset” your ears to quiet.

Listening when you don’t want to hear it

Listening gets even harder when someone is sharing information you don’t want to hear, like critical feedback or bad news. It’s hard to hear without getting defensive. If we don’t, though, we lose out on the opportunity to improve how we are being received — and that’s critical for developing as a leader. To listen more actively instead of shutting down, try the following:

Don’t shoot the messenger

We often end up venting our anger at the person who is giving us the bad news — especially if they are a subordinate or other “safe” person. But if you indulge that whim, you’ll create a culture where no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, and it will keep you from hearing about things early enough to fix them.

Assume positive intent

Adopt the mindset that the person sharing this information is doing so to help — even if they might not have positive intent.

Focus on the facts

Our minds often run ahead to the worst-case scenario. Repeat the facts to yourself, so that you don’t make mountains out of molehills.

Keep it impersonal

Make the discussion about the work or the action, not your identity, and ask for more detail so you have a clearer picture of the situation.

Don’t litigate

Hear them out. If you disagree with the feedback or information, thank them and tell them you’re going to think about it. Allow yourself time to cool off before deciding whether what to do next.

Gather more data

Ask a few people whose opinion you trust if there’s merit to this feedback before dismissing it.

Stay focused on what you can do about it

Finally, avoid the temptation to search for a root cause. Instead, focus on fixes.

Instilling good team listening habits

While some companies have opened up a Chief Listening Officer role, we’ve found that there are a few simple principles that anyone can implement to encourage a culture of listening:

Tell the truth

Nothing makes people tune out faster than jargon, hot air, and dishonesty. If you want others to listen carefully to what you have to say, make sure you’ve given them good reasons to believe you. A culture of real listening can only be founded on trust and honesty. Encourage transparency starting at the very top.

Interrupt interrupting

Many teams are in the habit of interrupting each other — breaking out their own ideas before others are finished speaking. We find this happens the most in boisterous, creative areas like marketing and innovation. It can feel exciting and fun, but it’s also a habit that keeps people from feeling like their ideas matter. When people cut each other off, each person has to fight louder to be heard by any means necessary.

To combat this, use a talking stick — a fun object that gives the holder the floor. At first, people will speak longer because they aren’t used to having the time they need. But as they realise that they aren’t being cut off, they’ll embrace brevity. If you don’t want to use a physical object, you can also designate a facilitator to call on people.

Round ‘em up

Instead of having an open debate, have a “reaction round”: around the table, each person, in turn, gives their perspective on the topic of discussion, with no back and forth. This helps people hear what is being said, instead of jockeying for their turn to speak.

Try “consent” decision making

Get clearer on the purpose of the meeting and exactly what you need to decide on. Ask “Is this safe to try?” instead of “Do I totally support this?” This keeps debate to a minimum and focuses on the issue at hand.

Building a culture of listening will not only make you more persuasive, but it will also help you navigate volatile emotions and cultivate collaboration across your organisation. When we listen to one another, our teams are more productive and efficient. As pioneering management consultant Margaret Wheatley says:

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.” 

Also check out Lauren Currie’s other business posts on the Heart Internet blog: Designing a culture of confidence, Managing your workload while maintaining your sanity, and Working better with remote teams and clients.

Subscribe to our monthly Heart Internet newsletter, filled with the latest articles about web design, development, building your business, and exclusive offers.

Subscribe now!


Please remember that all comments are moderated and any links you paste in your comment will remain as plain text. If your comment looks like spam it will be deleted. We're looking forward to answering your questions and hearing your comments and opinions!

Leave a reply

Comments are closed.

Drop us a line 0330 660 0255 or email