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‘Generous listening’: The skill you need most in the new world of work



Vuslat Doğan Sabancı



*This article is part of World Economic Forum Annual Meeting


If there is one crucial thing that the ‘Great Resignation’ or the even more recent ‘Quiet Quitting’ trend has taught us, it is that we, as leaders, have failed to listen generously to our employees. We have missed the growing level of discontent that has been brewing.

What did we miss and why? What was it that employees desired and longed for that our carefully built HR systems, 360-feedback methodologies and creative team bonding activities left unanswered and unnoticed? How might we have seen it and how could we have elevated their sense of ownership and engagement?

Looking into the ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’ movements, the newer trends in hybrid working and the preferences and working styles of younger generations, it becomes clearer that higher salaries, additional benefits, appealing perks, old tricks and quick fixes – such as motivational speeches and workshops – cannot suffice. Today’s employees continue to feel ambivalent, cynical and disempowered.

Why we must listen to employees?

What is the answer? One path we can and should take – is to listen generously to our employees, to see that engagement, dedication and commitment to work can only arise when colleagues and leaders forge deep and genuine connections. Only true meaningful interactions, not shallow transactions, can create these connections.

But what is ‘generous listening’? It is the skill of listening to ourselves, each other and nature, with generosity. We define it broadly as hearing beyond just words and engaging with both the heart and the mind. Generosity is rooted in understanding how we as individuals are connected to the wellbeing of others and humanity. Generosity implies values such as openness, courage, curiosity and responsiveness. The purposes of generous listening include understanding, empathy, better collaboration and genuine connectedness.

Generous listening in the workplace

Generous listening in the workplace is no easy endeavour. Most of us are more accustomed to a leadership style that communicates in a firm direction through clear speech and expression, rather than one that elevates listening, motivates inclusion and assures affirmative action. Yet, now we find ourselves at a crucial turning point. Amidst this major shift experienced in post-COVID-19 era workplaces all around the world, leaders have an important opportunity to reshape the cultures and collective wellbeing of their organizations. They have the opportunity to choose to elevate generous listening and to build inclusive systems that encourage diversity of thought, where employees feel valued and can fulfil their potential.

According to this research, listener responsiveness and the coordination of conversation listening increases the amount of information expressed and the range to which the listener comprehends the speaker’s objective. Additionally, listening promotes the cognitions of the speaker by improving memory, as well as reflective self-awareness. In the workplace, this means that through listening, leaders not only increase their employees’ job performance and job knowledge, but also improve their wellbeing and psychological safety by reducing burnout, emotional exhaustion and stress. Allowing employees to feel safe and valued creates genuine relationships and cultivates a sense of trust and belonging to their organization.

So, how can we listen generously? Here are some tips I’ve learned from personal and professional experience:

Be fully present

When listening to another, first try to clear your mind. Be aware of any of your underlying feelings and frustrations and set them aside. Then focus entirely on what the other person is saying. Don’t try to formulate your answers as they speak, multi-task or let your mind wander. Remain present and attentive. Put away potential distractions that are likely to become obstacles to generous listening. Put your phone away. If you are at your desk, close your laptop or turn your chair towards the person to whom you are listening.

Set bias and judgement aside

Generous listening is an empathetic and compassionate practice. When you listen generously, you make an active effort to see the world through another’s perspective and to understand their thoughts and feelings. This will never be fully possible if you hold judgement or bring your personal biases to the table. Conversations like this will tend to hit a wall, with some parties being on the defensive and making others shut down. Instead, why not start the conversation with a clean slate and offer courage, compassion, openness and understanding? You will likely be pleasantly surprised to find that we all come from one common shared experience and there are traces of each of us within the other.

Listen to learn

We are all unique. We bring our different experiences to the workplace, each with different backgrounds, educations and knowledge. You can never know what you might learn from listening to someone. Be curious. When you meet a person try to think of listening as a free learning opportunity. Being engaged in the topic and with the person will help you create genuine and deeper relationships.

Do not interrupt

Leaders must respect their peers and be genuinely curious about what they must share, rather than interrupt the flow of dialogue and disengage team members. Leaders should strive to be attentive, caring and attuned to the underlying rhythms and moods of their team, generously listening far beyond words and picking up the subtle cues that reveal more. Doing this, they could lead as an example, but more importantly, could set the stepping stones and foundations to cultivating a wider culture of generous listening in the workplace.