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How to Listen to People’s Experiences

James Warren July 06, 2024
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In our work with companies and leaders who are trying to engage with underrepresented communities, groups and audiences, the question of how always comes up.

Assuming an honest intention to understand and engage is clear and present, and there is a values-based AND strategic-level understanding of WHY it matters, we can then talk through how it works.

I get this, because on a human level, it can be difficult to figure out how to open yourself up to voices and perspectives that you are less familiar with – or haven’t paid attention to. Yes, for some this comes naturally, but for many it does not.

That said, we can all be better listeners. And as leaders, if we’re going to truly create better employee, customer and community experiences, it depends on our ability to listen.

Here’s what we’ve come up with as a program for listening to other people’s experiences – individually and at scale – in 10 Steps:

1️⃣ De-center self / reprioritize others. Listening isn’t really about what you want to know. It’s about making space for what others need to say.

2️⃣ Research who you need to listen to, and who you will listen to. These are slightly different choices. Whose voices are absent from your decision-making as an org, brand or community leader? That’s who you need to listen to. But you can’t do it all at once, so you need to be intentional about your starting points – and be able to explain why you’re starting where you are.

3️⃣ Be thoughtful about your questions: what are you trying to understand? Where are your blind spots? What does your research indicate may be areas they feel underheard in? Focus less on what you want to hear, and more what they want to say. This leads to knowledge expansion because you’ll tend to hear more of what they needed you to hear, which leads to learning more about what you need to know.

4️⃣ Ask permission for the conversation; then ask your questions. If you have zero relationships, trust or credibility, you can’t just barge in. You don’t deserve their time or voice, just because you’re ready. (Leaders make this mistake all the time.) So be humble here.

5️⃣ Listen to the answers (online, in person, conversational). Sounds simple, but a lot of people skip this step because this is where the rubber meets the road. If you’re not actually taking in the perspectives, experiences and stories, but you’re trying to “figure it out” before you’ve got it all, you’re wasting their time and yours.

6️⃣ Reflect and examine bias. You will likely have some negative reactions to things you hear and learn, especially when you’re hearing them from people you haven’t engaged with much before and they’re experiences with your company, brand or organization aren’t positive. Remember that you’re processing those reactions through your filter, and that this is an exercise in improving your filter. Sit with it. Take it in.

7️⃣ Ask more questions, listen to more responses. Individually and at scale, go deeper with your questions. Ask about impacts, how these experiences make people feel. This isn’t about blame; this is about intentional empathy.

8️⃣ Reflect on what this means to you. What have you learned? What have you heard? How does it make you feel? Go back to your intention. Through that frame, what are the implications for your leadership, your company, your brand, your product or your organization?

9️⃣ Make commitments and begin to change. Share the journey. Be up front about the goal and where you are. The narrative will evolve as the experience itself evolves. This is about improving experiences in the long-run, and soon enough, that becomes the next chapter in your story.

🔟 Measure and repeat. Share with these stakeholders – employees, customers, community members – where you are, what you’re learning, how you’re applying it, and next steps. That’s how you bring people along a journey, together.

Here are a few slides from a recent talk I gave about listening to diverse voices in order to improve consumer (customer) experiences with brands. More info in there.

I hope this is helpful. Shoot me an email or book an appointment if you want to talk more about listening to improve EX or CX.


SEEQ is revolutionizing the way we understand human experiences through stories and AI, and by blending the best of qual and quant methods. The results are actionable EX and CX insights that help you improve your culture, brand and products.

Check out my Featured Content or visit our company page Share More Stories on LinkedIn for more insights about understanding your company’s employee and customer experience, so you can make them better.

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