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Empathy | Leadership | SCARF

How to Listen Deeply: A Guide for Organizations

An illustration of a listening circle

America still has a long way to go to address its pervasive human rights crisis. In this country and around the world, people are struggling to address the longstanding injustice and inequality that boiled over in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

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

We’ve written about how the pandemic opened deep fissures in our sense of autonomy, certainty, and social connection, three of the five social domains in which humans are particularly vulnerable. Corporate virtue signaling around racial injustice has gone further and exacerbated a painful rupture in a sense of fairness.

Organizations have responded by proclaiming solidarity with the movement for racial justice and 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.

Part of the answer is to listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly. While it’s not possible to erase inequity overnight, listening can assuage deep feelings of unfairness by making employees feel heard and understood. More importantly, listening can help organizations understand how their cultures affect employees and provide a roadmap for what changes are needed.

One of the most powerful tools available to organizations is the listening circle, a session in which employees are invited to speak, one at a time, while others listen with empathy and minimal judgment to work hard to understand. People are free to speak about whatever they want leaders and others to hear, including their thoughts and experiences about equity, belonging, inclusion, race, and more.

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’s an experience where people share quite personal, difficult stories about their experiences, beliefs, and observations. Many people, particularly people of color, may experience listening circles as a safe space for voices that had been underrepresented or silenced until now.

Listening circles only work if people speak from the heart, and people can only do that if they feel safe enough to be vulnerable. That’s why it’s critical to foster an environment of “psychological safety” — what researcher Amy Edmondson defines as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-tasking.” If employees hesitate to speak up because they’re worried about potentially punitive repercussions, the circle is not psychologically safe. In addition to a climate of non-judgment, an effective listening circle consists of:

  • 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
  • An understanding that it’s not the job of employees with historically marginalized identities to educate other 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 in place about all the above, made explicit for everyone involved

Listen to understand

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 sit in a circle and pass around an eagle feather, talking stick, or other sacred totem to indicate whose turn it is to speak. 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 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 also 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, and improves connectedness among team members. It’s also been shown to help with conflict resolution and negotiation, and decrease prejudice and stereotyping. Perspective taking means suspending our own frame of reference to see the world through another’s eyes.

But perspective-taking is hard — and being in a position of power makes it even harder. Because of their place in the organizational hierarchy, leaders can be out of touch with the routine vulnerabilities that rank-and-file employees face. There’s an undeniable cognitive impact of this structural power, and it can influence how leaders perceive those lower on the organizational chart.

That’s why deep listening means responding, at most, by restating what we hear to confirm that we understand or by 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 to another’s point of view.

Listen with a growth mindset

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

All of this requires humility and a growth mindset. For leaders and employees alike, deep listening necessitates finding the strength to receive difficult feedback graciously, especially if what they hear is not what they expected.

Growth mindset means focusing not on proving yourself, but improving yourself. Leaders can do this by focusing first on learning and understanding, and then on reimagining — not with guilt about past blunders, but with hope and resolve. They must recognize that organizations, like people, can leverage difficult feedback to learn, change, and grow into something better than they were before.

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