The underrated skill all good leaders have – the ability to story listen

When was the last time you listened to someone’s story? We mean really listened. Your attention focused on what they were sharing, how they were sharing it, their body language and other visual and energetic cues, rather than formulating your response or letting your mind wander off? 

We focus a great deal of time, attention, effort and even money on storytelling, but often we overlook the extraordinary potential of story listening to engage, support and progress our communities and organisations. 

One of the three core foundations of story leadership, listening to stories is one of the best ways to understand what is happening in a complex and dynamic situation (Anecdote, 2005). 

“Listening involves a certain surrender, a willingness to sit with what one does not already know…[it] requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect or want.” – Diana Senechal

Let’s take a look at what it means to ‘story listen’ and how you can be doing it better to serve your community or stakeholders.

What is story listening?

We define ‘story listening’ as the act of actively, consciously and mindfully listening to someone’s story, paying attention to the verbal and non-verbal elements of their story, and responding thoughtfully. An increasingly important ‘soft skill’, the ability to story listen has become the basis of engagement, trust, healthy democracy, social equity, and business sustainability.

Writing in the International Journal of Listening on ‘Listening in the Business Context’, Jan Flynn et al. describes listening as:

“That which requires recognition of others’ rights and views; acknowledgement; paying attention; interpreting what is said to gain an understanding of others’ views; giving consideration to what is said; and providing an appropriate response, which is so rare that it can be said there is a ‘crisis of listening’ in contemporary societies.” 

As such, story listening involves creating spaces, rhythms and architecture or mechanisms in your organisational or community culture where people are invited and encouraged to share their stories and experiences, and – critically – have those stories heard. 

A practice as old as time

Since time immemorial, Aboriginal people have practised deep listening as an almost spiritual skill, based on respect through the process of ‘Dadirri’ – a word meaning ‘inner deep listening and quiet still awareness and waiting.’ 

Providing a depth of spirituality known to “enrich our Non- Indigenous spirits in so many ways,” it is a word from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (Northern Territory, Australia).

Respected Elder, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM, describes ‘Dadirri’ as:

“It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us.

“In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. Our people have passed on this way of listening for over 40,000 years.”

Please take the time to read the full excerpt: Dadirri – A Reflection By Miriam – Rose Ungunmerr- Baumann and we gratefully acknowledge the work of Dadirri Disability Services in approaching and receiving permission from Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM to include her explanation of ‘Dadirri’ in their work and on their website.

According to Creative Spirits, this deep listening describes the processes of deep and respectful listening to build community—a way of encouraging people to explore and learn from the ancient heritage of Aboriginal culture, knowledge and understanding. It means awareness of where you’ve come from, why you are here, where are you going now and where you belong – and this principle of deep listening can provide a roadmap for organisations and communities alike. 

Why story listening is critical for your organisation

Organisations are spending tens of thousands, if not millions, every year on marketing,  communication and storytelling. Organisations are frequently ‘talking the talk’ of two-way communication by littering their work with buzzwords like engagement, dialogue, conversation, consultation, collaboration, and relationships with their stakeholders – but are they actually listening

Studies from UTS suggest perhaps not, with an overwhelming 80 percent of organisation’s public communications consisting of ‘speaking’ or disseminating messages using a transmissional or broadcast mode (UTS, 2015). Surprisingly, this rises up to 95 percent on social media, which was specifically designed to encourage so-called ‘two-way’ communication and interaction.

“Listening is one of the most underrated skills of leadership.” – Otto Scharmer, Founder of TheoryU, MIT Sloan School of Management (Inner Development Goals Summit, 2022)

Listening is arguably the single most important element in the communication process, even more so than speaking (Flynn, Valikoski & Grau, 2008). And while the ability to listen, evaluate and respond to the ‘story data’ around you is a critical skill for individuals to develop – research also suggests that listening is also characteristic of organisational culture, and something that will become increasingly more important in the business world.

READ: How to create a storytelling culture and why it matters  ↗

More than a token

According to Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, Professor of Public Communication, University of Technology Sydney: organisational listening cannot be achieved simply by adding a listening tool or solution, such as automated software applications or a tokenistic ‘have your say’ page on a website.

Effective organisational listening requires an ‘architecture of listening’ comprised of eight key elements:

  1. A culture of listening;
  2. Protocols for listening;
  3. Addressing the politics of listening;
  4. Structures and processes for listening;
  5. Technologies for listening;
  6. Resources for listening;
  7. Skills for listening; and
  8. Articulation of listening to decision-making and policy making
Story Listening

It takes work, but it’s worth it – and on the other side of story listening is greater trust, more effective communication, greater engagement, and increased social equity. What business or community doesn’t want that?

Five ways to improve story listening in your organisation

1. Create intentional spaces to listen to stories 

Whether it’s starting your weekly check-ins with the chance to share a recent story of your work or ending your meetings by giving staff an avenue to submit a story of their favourite client interaction or community ‘win’ or (or loss!) for the week – the best organisations make room for story listening with intention and purpose.

It could look like dedicated spaces for story-sharing in meetings, formal or informal interviews, Knowledge Cafes, story circles, thinking pairs, surveys, or any number of activities that encourage people to lean into their natural ability to hear, their curiosity and care for one another, and to ‘down tools’ and listen to the earth, the environment and the people that surround you.

Could you start a channel on your company’s Slack or Teams, encouraging team members to share stories and experiences weekly – #WeeklyWins or #Flearning (failing and learning)?

And you needn’t fear that opening these spaces for listening will ‘open the floodgates’ and result in a deluge of negative or challenging comments, requests, and expectations that you cannot deal with. On the contrary, having communities or teams who are disengaged can be a bigger problem than having them engaged, and according to the research: ‘the vast majority of people are “happy just to be heard” and have their opinion noted, “get something off their chest”, or be assured that “the same thing won’t happen again”.’ (UTS, 2015)

2. Ask the ‘right’ questions

The right questions are open-ended and thoughtful. They invite people to speak from their personal experience i.e. take you to a specific moment or experience, rather than speak in generalities. It can be a great idea to create space for people to respond without a specific question. For example:

→ ‘Is there anything else?’ 

→ ‘Is there a question you would’ve loved to have been asked about this?’

→ ‘Are there others you would have loved to hear from?’

→ ‘What else do you want us to know about this?’

This opens space for possibility by making sure we are not just asking about what we want to know, but we are creating space for the storyteller to say what they want to say, or what you need to hear. This is often where the greatest insights will be. And don’t forget to embed story sharing into debriefs and evaluation processes by not just asking for what people liked or didn’t like, but inviting them to share a story or a moment that stuck with them.

3. Go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ 

Opening up a consultation process or putting out an open call for stories will usually bring a chorus of the same voices every time. How might you get responses beyond the usual suspects? This involves outreach. Perhaps it’s even a survey or process about story listening itself and how people feel about it that helps you build the architecture and culture of story listening in your community or organisation. 

Other things to think about include:

  • Do you need somebody specific to put out the invitation or facilitate the process? 
  • Do responses need to be invited in a different way to account for different ways that people engage? (e.g. written, 1:1, anonymous, spoken)
  • Are you creating a safe space for all types of voices and all levels of the organisation to speak up? 
  • Do you need to provide greater transparency on how the ‘stories’ or data you collect in the listening process will be used? 

To truly listen, you have to put the effort in to listen to those who are harder to reach or who don’t always show up and respond, but whose insights are nonetheless valuable.

4. Foster a shared understanding of ‘story listening’ 

Listening requires a delicate balance of receiving and reciprocating—taking information and giving attention and care. Our skills and ability to listen is likely to be different for each person, but establishing some shared parameters in communities or organisations can be helpful. 

When we are thinking about what it takes to be a story listener, there are some really useful tips from relationship expert, Esther Perel. Establish a shared understanding of:

  • What time of day do we tend to have our best conversations?
  • What is a tell tale sign that my attention is fading?
  • Show me the face I make when I’m really listening to you intently.

Instead of listening for flaws or counter-arguments, it’s important for us to listen to understand. Instead of focusing on being right, Perel says, focus on what may be right about what the other person is saying. Sometimes we want to be listened to and prompted with questions, other times we just want the space to be heard. 

5. Be transparent about why the listening is happening

We mentioned it above, but being transparent about why people are being invited to share their stories is critical, not only to establish expectations but also so that people can make an informed decision on whether they’d like their story to be shared.

Are you listening to get feedback for implementation? Is it merely a consultation process to canvas ideas? Are people’s stories going to be used in marketing materials in some way, shape or form? And if they opt-out – that’s okay! 

While story listening can be both strategic and relational, it should never be an extractive process. No hidden agendas, no ‘gotcha’ moments – we story listen to understand, to build trust and empathy, and to spark creativity and innovation. And that is how we generate ways forward that respect the past and honour the present. 

Does your organisation have a robust culture of story listening? We’d love to hear more about what that looks like! Drop us a line or get involved in the conversation on LinkedIn.

Organisations both big and small including SAPUniversity of WollongongWorkFront and the Australia Awards have been using these Story Listening techniques to further their strategic goals and engage their diverse communities.

Want to know how Story Listening processes could be used in your organisation? Learn more here.