Shush, listen…

shush listenkyle smith SIZ66vF4FKA unsplash

Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash  

By Katie Marlow

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey

Right now, it feels noisy, there is so much for the comms profession to work through to help their leaders communicate through this latest round of lockdown in the UK. They are balancing the message of calm reassurance, creating the energy to help organisations adapt quickly, again, and take a thorough approach to interpret the latest restrictions and what the impact will be for business and colleagues. The most adaptable businesses will find a way through. It is a challenge for the most experienced and adept leadership and comms teams. 

Even before Covid-19, the world felt incredibly noisy. 

Imagine how noisy it is for colleagues now.

There was limited space for listening well and nuance pre Covid-19. But now in our crammed and, at times, divisive 2020 world there seems to be even less space to pause, reflect and discuss. Are we able to speak up when we want to? Is it safe to do so? Or are the risks of speaking out and taking a position too great right now as businesses and jobs are under threat? [check out Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety at work for deeper insight].


We’re in a time of huge change. That presents an opportunity to experiment and try new approaches. I’d love it if one of those experiments were, to be bold enough to slow down and listen more so that we can all understand better and be more intentional in our strategy and communication. If we understand better we can focus our efforts on what matters most and on the work which has the greatest impact.

Listening and creating cultures where it’s safe to speak up and be heard are key. I believe for many organisations, that this will be essential to their ability to adapt and survive as we face the challenges of now and the future.

Throughout my career, I’ve been the quiet reflector. I’ve often wondered why managers and leaders don’t listen to what colleagues could tell them. If we all listened a little better, we’d understand a lot more, and just imagine how powerful that could be in our business decision making and innovation. 

What stops us listening?

I realised through experience that it takes humility and vulnerability to listen in a way that really makes a difference. And that is hard to do, especially in many corporate settings. What’s more with a competitive edge in many organisations, the system works against us showing our own limitations or supporting those with greater potential. If only we could all be a little more human at work. 

This is one of the driving forces behind the creation of my business, to help organisations listen better to work better. I’ve seen more organisations realise their potential and with Covid accelerating change exponentially, every business needs to really get listening. 

The reasons I’ve seen preventing organisations from listening better distil into these key factors that we need to overcome:

  1. Too busy

We’re all too busy moving onto the next project, campaign or sale to pause and reflect

  1. Failure, feedback, potential and vulnerability

Giving feedback, providing critique, harnessing potential, listening to alternative views, embracing potential, admitting mistakes or failures, and accepting feedback as a chance to grow are still in short supply in many organisations. It’s not always ‘safe’ or the done thing to speak up. It takes being bold enough to be vulnerable to admit mistakes or suggest a different view. It can certainly be easier to accept the status quo than to rock the boat

  1. Loudest voices

The loudest, most senior voices are most frequently heard, given a stage and power to influence. It’s human nature. But there are just as many people in organisations who reflect and consider, but don’t have the platform to be heard. Are we missing an opportunity to learn or perhaps miss the next great idea?

So what can we do to be better at listening? How can that help us to create strategy?

A strategy and plan to put active listening to understand what people really think is a logical place to start. Consider: 

  1. How will you encourage people to share ideas and speak up?

Give people the platform and space to be heard. Encourage them to share ideas and concerns across different platforms and forums to suit their style. Be open to hear what they share and take action and build it into your strategy

  1. How will you and leaders listen to understand?

Coach leaders to listen authentically, how to receive feedback and how they can use it to create collaborative and exceptional teams. Think about the tools and systems needed to really listen, especially now many teams are working remotely.

  1. Your culture – how will you make it safe to speak up if it’s not already?

What’s needed to create a workplace where people feel psychologically safe and reach their potential? It takes time and a consistent approach to communication. Demonstrating that it’s safe to share feedback, to make mistakes, learn, innovate and speak up is important. Show what’s possible and unleash the talent in your organisation

  1. Learn and adapt

Gather what you learn and use it to inform strategy, engage with colleagues and develop new ideas about work. 

What practical communication steps can we take as part of a listening strategy?

  1. Create the platforms and spaces to talk and share. 

A range of approaches including employee forums and internal social tools provide the space. Aequip does this beautifully, and because it’s anonymous it helps those more reserved colleagues to speak up and share their ideas and more

  1. Use the data

Both quantitative and qualitative data is vital to understanding a full range of voices across the organisation. Use that data to coach leaders, to shape your content, and help people work together

  1. Communication coaching

Coach and nurture great communication skills in your organisation. If you don’t have the coaching skills, learn them or bring in support to help you. Help others speak up and give them a platform

  1. Share failures and ideas

Show colleagues the failures in business as well as the successes. Talk about how things went wrong, and what was learned from the experience – use these stories in your news and team meetings to encourage others to try new approaches. Show that ideas and discussion are welcomed. Respond positively to critical comments, reflect and understand and show that it’s not just safe, but encouraged to ask senior leaders questions

  1. Nurture collaboration

Help teams collaborate where they need to by introducing the communication skills and platforms to help them to connect and work together effectively. Get people involved in creating strategies, beyond inviting their comments on a foregone conclusion

These suggestions are not revolutionary but they do take time, skills and intentional action to implement and create change. You’ll need the leadership onside to shift to a culture that listens more wholeheartedly. Take a strategic and systematic approach to encouraging more listening across the organisation, starting with the groups that are most open to the concepts of listening, vulnerability and sharing failures. From there build out to those who are keen and show interest, allowing the culture of openness to spread more naturally through the culture.

Organisations that truly listen will be more resilient and adapt as we weather the world of uncertainty which we all face.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog.

About Katie Marlow

I work with businesses of all shapes and sizes to help them communicate clearly, reveal the human connections that matter and get meaningful results. I am also pleased to be an Aequip partner. Read more in my solutions page. If you would like to find out what people think and feel about your business, and communicate with them better, get in touch.

Aequip helps companies to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion by optimising employee communication using behavioural science. We give people a safe and direct way to provide feedback about anything happening at their company, regardless of who they are or what their role is. Our platform collects anonymous feedback so that we can make sure that all voices are heard, especially individuals not in the dominant culture. You can read more about us here. If you have any questions you can Contact Us.