Inclusive Listening & Managing Diverse Experiences


You’ve hired a diverse team and have told them all that you value their suggestions and feedback, and they are sharing freely.  As a team. On every project.

Are you feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t feel bad.  It can definitely be difficult to manage so many different viewpoints. Especially when your team is passionate about what you do and have strong emotional connections to the experiences that have shaped their world-view.  Each team has to find its own balance and ways of negotiating these differences. No one method offers a one-size-fits-all solution. How could it, your team is diverse and probably differs significantly from the group dynamics of the team that preceded it.

So, what do you do?

First, make sure that you have created and nurtured a strong and inclusive culture.  One that is flexible and can shift to accommodate new voices and experiences, but strong enough to hold the team together.  This is achieved by clearly defining your organization’s values and creating policies that are aligned and supportive of them.  It involves making your organization’s inclusive culture a daily priority.

Next, you need to know your team.  Make an effort to get them on a somewhat personal level so that you can better understand who they are, and what motivates them.  Learn what parts of your organization and their job they are passionate about. Learn where they want to go within the organization and in life.  Pay attention to more than just what they do, but to how they do it. Learn where their skills and strengths are. Do all of this and you will have begun to learn how to fit them into the positions where they will be most effective and engaged.

Now that you know who your people are and where they will be most effective, engaged, and happy, you have to help your team work together.  If we are being honest, this is no small task. We all view the world and the situations we find ourselves differently. We have different ways of processing and organizing our thoughts, emotions, and knowledge.  We all have unconscious biases and blind spots that can impact the way in which we interact with others. And we haven’t all developed the skill necessary to practice inclusive listening.

So, how do we practice inclusive listening?

Speak In Less Definitive Terms

First, we start by being aware of how we speak.  Too often we speak in absolutes and use definite terms.  We tell rather than seek feedback. When we do this, we shut down the communication channels before we have even begun the conversation.

The simplest thing we can do is ask for feedback, opinions, and ideas.  But we can also use language such as, “In my opinion,” “I was thinking,” or “What if.”  This shift in language invites conversation and the sharing of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  It shows people that you are open to listening and that you have not made up your mind. They will not be as worried that you will become inflexible in the face of honest opinions.

Recognize And Allow For Different Communication Styles

We all have different ways of entering and engaging in discussions. Recognizing the different styles people have will help you seek and receive input from everyone.  

Some people will have ideas and thoughts they want to share immediately. They tend to be the most vocal, sometimes overly so. Maybe they are the type, who without realizing it, speak over others. Recognize this. Thank them for their input and then ask the remaining members of the conversation for theirs.

Some will need time to digest what they are hearing and to analyze what they have to offer back to the conversation.  These people may be the last to speak, or even the ones who offer their thoughts in writing after a meeting has ended.  This is actually a good thing. They tend to offer thoughtful, detailed, well researched ideas and opinions and can be an important balance to the the quick thinkers.  Knowing that they will have valuable input to offer will help you to remember to ask them for their thoughts and opinions before moving on to a new discussion topic. Or maybe you approach them earlier than others and let them know you’d like them to have their thoughts ready on particular topic at an upcoming meeting.

There are those who need to bounce ideas off others or even debate a topic.  Others will need to ask a lot of questions. Some will need visual materials to help them digest information.  And there are those who will be overwhelmed by rapid fire conversations and debates.

If you notice that someone communicates differently than you do, you can adjust the way you approach them in the future. It is also ok to ask them about how they prefer to communicate if you feel that you are not currently communicating with each other effectively.  

Be Adaptable

Learn your team members’ communication styles and make the conscious effort to engage them in the way they communicate best.  If your primary approach to communication isn’t working try a different way. If you are a leader it is your responsibility to find a way to engage your employees or team members.

Allow For Honest Conversations

In any conversation there is the possibility that it will touch on topics and concerns that you didn’t anticipate.  Allow it to happen. A diverse team will have a wide range of experiences and perceptions. This is why a diverse team can accomplish amazing things together.  But sometimes those conversations are hard. Something you feel is a good idea on its face may, during an honest discussion, be revealed as having a negative connotation or perception to others that you weren’t aware of because of an unconscious bias and blind spot.  Allowing for these honest, sometimes difficult, conversations means that you can address potential issues before they become real ones. And in the process you will often arrive at a solution that is better and more inclusive than the original idea.

Listen For Values And Feelings

Don’t just listen for facts.  Facts may be essential to accomplishing your goals, but, be honest with ourselves.  We know the values and feelings of others is how ideas are going to be judged. We need to let the values and feelings of all members of a team guide our discussion.  Address them all as best you can and the end result is sure to be better than a purely fact driven idea.

Avoid Your Own Stereotypical Responses

We all have our go-to’s when we are in a discussion.  Those simple, safe, non committal responses that show that we are present.  But, are we really?

No, we probably aren’t.  

It is essential that we are actively listening and engaging in conversations. You need to genuinely connect in response to what you’ve heard. Show that you not only heard but listened to the person who was speaking. Affirm their contribution. Paraphrase them, build on what they offered, or share what you thought was good or not so good about what they offered to the discussion.  Maybe connect it to someone in the group that you think will have valuable input to offer.

Listen Without Rehearsing

How many times have you heard something and tuned out the rest of what was being said because you were composing your response? I’ll be honest, I have to be very careful of this.  It’s very easy for me to begin analyzing what’s been said and get lost in my own head trying to figure out how to respond.

Don’t tune out to rehearse!  Honest communication happens when we remain present in the entire conversation and don’t over-edit ourselves.  If you need time to compose your thoughts, begin by paraphrasing what you’ve just heard. And be OK with needing to clarify yourself as you are responding.  

When we practice inclusive listening, we will be better able to manage our diverse teams and help them achieve their full potential.  Inclusive listening also helps build and strengthen truly Inclusive Cultures and team unity.

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