Are You Listening Carefully?


I’ve been thinking about listening recently, having watched a Ted talk by the virtuoso percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie.  Dame Glennie has performed with a range of musical talents, and with every major orchestra in America and Europe. She is also profoundly deaf. 


She learnt to ‘hear’ music by putting her hands on the wall of the music room, as the music was being played. She plays music by allowing the vibrations of the instrument to reverberate through her whole body; hands, legs, tummy, head, feet, as she plays without shoes. Like any other musician, she is able to hear what she plays; but she does so by engaging her whole body. 


This got me wondering how we can improve our ability to listen, in a way that is over and above hearing with our ears, and particularly what the impact of that could be in the workplace, where many of us spend most of our time.


Why is listening important in the workplace?


Staff fulfilment. When I am listened to, it makes me feel as if my ideas are valuable, the company is better off with my contribution, and it stirs me to provide more value in what I do.


Staff wellbeing. If you notice that someone is not their normal self and you ask them how they are, they then have the opportunity to tell you.  If it’s a personal issue, you can then consider how to support them, so they can move forward.


Your people are more likely to come with you, when you need to make changes, or problems occur. If you are listening to ideas or concerns and acting upon them, when faced with a change process your people will know that from experience, they will be listened to, and that they can trust you.


It releases new ideas into the company. We all come with our own unique packages of upbringing, education, passions, talents and opinions; these can be left untapped, if we don’t intentionally ask each individual for e.g., ideas on how to do things better.


How can I listen well at work?


Learn to ‘tune in’ to your own intuition or gut feeling. Have you ever felt uneasy about pursuing a course of action? Maybe it’s meant acting against one of your core values. It may be trying to save money by cutting your customer service training, when one of your values is providing great customer service.


Be sensitive to behaviour that is ‘out of character’. One of the key components of Roffey Park Institute’s Compassion in the Workplace Model is ‘being alive to the suffering of others’ and particularly in noticing changes in behaviour. Is someone unusually quiet, avoiding interaction, withdrawn, quick to get snappy or just turning up looking like they haven’t slept? It may be that they are trying to hide some emotional distress from you because they don’t want to be seen as weak.


Be available. I’m not sure how he did it, but my very busy former CEO never turned me away when I went to talk to him.  Having times when you door is open, builds a feeling of value and trust in your people.


How to create a listening culture


Start with yourself. Practice listening with your whole body to others. Watch their body language, tone of voice, how they look. Be empathetic, allow yourself to feel what others are feeling, ask questions.


Recognise the barriers to listening. These include busyness, preoccupation with deadlines, or a reluctance to accept that others may have better ideas than you. 


Teach your leaders to listen. The most effective way to shape culture is to model it from the top. An orchestral conductor knows when someone is playing out of tune; they can detect discordance (you always hope it isn’t you!).  Teach your managers to hear/sense when there is unhappiness in the team.


Create ways to facilitate listening. Create an hour slot every week for any member of staff to come and talk to you about anything; have walking meetings.


Take action when you are given new ideas or feedback on something that isn’t working well.  Follow up. This will integrate your value of listening into your culture and show staff that you mean it. 


One of the most powerful ways of valuing people is to listen to them


I used to think that you couldn’t influence your company culture, in a sustainable way. I now believe that you can. However, because you are dealing with that unpredictable resource of human beings, it’s a bit like tending a garden and it takes effort, time and patience. 


Purpose and Values

Let me give a personal example. I have two (almost) grown up children.  My husband and I wanted them to become secure, confident, joyful, compassionate and considerate people. We have tried our best to create a home environment according to our values, of being respectful to everyone, fun and silliness, creativity, encouragement in what they like to do, and are good at, and unconditional love.



I sat with them as they did their homework; I coached my son through his compulsory French coursework, (not one of his strengths – think ‘pulling teeth’). We painted our hallway in blackboard paint, so they could make chalk pictures.  We had competitions on who could make the silliest face. We took them abroad as often as we could afford, to introduce them to different languages, and cultures. They went to school, developed their own friendship groups; then they became teenagers……and then we waited. 



They are now in the big wide world; one is at university, one has gone straight into employment. They are unique individuals, outworking our values and some of their own, in their individual ways.  Their behaviour is reflecting a set of values. Furthermore, in order for them to get on in the world, they need to be able to adapt to the values of the team or company they choose to join.


What’s this got to do with me?

Our companies consist of a whole collection of unique individuals with their own experiences of nurture and collection of values.  As leaders, we set our culture, whether we do so intentionally or not according to the values we hold to. So if you want to influence your company culture, here are some very simple pointers:


Be clear about what your purpose is.

Eg, provide an excellent service/product


Identify your underlying values.

Eg, Can-do


Recognise how you can outwork them and mobilise your leadership team to start doing so.

Eg,A monthly hour-long team meeting for the team to come together to brainstorm solutions.


Start changing your language

“So, you’ve identified a problem; what do you suggest doing about it?”


Give yourself some waiting time

Allow the new way of thinking and behaving to embed itself and become part of your ‘can-do’ culture.


And as the energy and ideas begin to flow and your people begin to flourish, celebrate them, talk about them, gush.


“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Audrey Hepburn


What do you mean by ‘Culture’?

 When someone mentions ‘Culture’, what do you think of? Is it the difference between being bought up to eat snails – or black pudding? Flamenco, or Morris Dancing?  Is it a bit wishy washy, another one of those faddy initiatives that will be replaced by something else in a few years’ time? Or does it remind you of science lessons, where you took a swab from your mouth placed it on a petri dish, with agar in it, and watched the bacteria grow……..?

I would suggest that when you think about it, Culture is everywhere.

Impact of Culture

Have you ever worked in a place where one member of staff is so entrenched in an ‘us and them’ attitude where speaking positively about Management (who may not be perfect, but they are not the enemy) is team betrayal. They are effectively dictating the Culture of the team.

What about Culture in family – my husband’s family eat Yorkshire Puddings on Christmas day. Mine doesn’t. Completely unacceptable. It’s amazing what you argue about.


Culture can be defined as the spoken – and unspoken – rules, norms, traditions, values and beliefs of a group of people. In fact, wherever you have people, whether it be your friendship group, family, sports team, or workplace, you will have a Culture. It creates itself, or you create it. It comes from a leader, not always the leader in ‘title’. Which is concerning, because Culture dictates behaviour and behaviour influences your outcome.

What about the Culture of a sports team?

 Chris Coleman, when interviewed after Wales’ win against Belgium in the Euro 2016 Cup, said “I tell the team that it’s OK to dream - and it’s OK to fail”. 

(Dreaming will be covered at a later date), but does that mean that having a Culture where it’s’ OK to fail’, results in a fearlessness, a courage, a willingness to take risks, to step out of your comfort zone; to achieve that, which was previously impossible. Imagine that in the workplace.

Just as ‘Agar’ in the petri dish, provides the stable and nutritious environment that enables bacteria to grow, cultivating a healthy work environment will result in a Culture in which your people grow, develop, thrive, and achieve more for them, and the company, than was previously possible.

So the next time you hear the word ‘Culture’, and are minded to think of Morris Dancing…..remember the Agar. 

For how I can shape your Culture, see :



Embracing the Unknown

Vanessa O'Shea, July 2017

Statistics say that 9 out of 10 people don’t fulfil their dreams. When we decide to pursue a dream,  whether its running a marathon, learning to play an instrument, or starting your own business, it’s risky, because we are faced with not knowing how and if we are going to get there. I’ve listed below what I’ve learnt so far from taking a risk in (almost) each decade (I’m still learning) and how it’s helped me in starting a business.

Make some friends/allies

When I was 18, I went on holiday to the south of France, and ended getting a job as au-pair for a year.  In my first week, I found myself at the park with a 2 year old, with limited French and knowing no-one. I was suddenly overcome with loneliness, asking myself “what have I done?.” Thankfully, it wasn’t long before another au pair came and introduced herself. When I joined Brighton Chamber of Commerce, I met my tribe; lots of other folk who were also starting their own businesses, taking risks, learning to speak another ‘language’. It’s a constant source of support.

Approach your vision with determination

I love classical music and in my 30s’ I decided to learn the cello. Once I had reached a certain standard, I would turn up at orchestra alongside 12 year olds who were better than me. Was I frightened of failing? Yes. But I practiced and practiced and practiced; and I got to play symphonies. Setting myself goals and being disciplined in action, has enabled me to walk through the fear of failure, and sometimes given me the reason I needed to get out of bed in the morning. 

Return to your passion

In my 40’s, I left my job and became an HR Consultant specialising in shaping culture. This followed years of seeing the impact of people being valued, and not valued, and culture being the key. Fearing that business will dry up, or not take off as I want it to is a real possibility. Regularly revisiting my passion energises me and helps me focus my decision-making.

Remember that the battle is usually in your head

A year ago, I turned 50, and took up running. Having not run since I was at school, I was terrified of looking silly, being laughed at, and holding everybody back. However, I have learnt something amazing. When your body is telling you that you can’t run any further you just tell your head to be quiet. When I sit down to write or design a new training programme, or plan a presentation, and it gets hard or I run out of ideas, I do the same, because I know my there is usually more.

Following our dreams would be so much easier if we didn’t have to walk through the fear that comes with it. However, I don’t think we would learn half as much about ourselves; we certainly wouldn’t experience the rewards. It involves courageously embracing the unknown. It’s worth it!


Margaret Wheatley in her book, ‘Who do we choose to be?’ says: “Ours is a culture obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. As a consequence of this, we are more lonely, estranged and lost than at any time on this planet.”

There is much talk nowadays about how to become happy. Whether it is to be richer, thinner, famous, have the latest gadget, be more popular, have more holidays; in my own life, I know there isn’t much that can’t be rectified by some warm sunshine, or a good cup of coffee. It is important to know what it is that recharges us or cheers us up. However, I wonder if this drive towards happiness masks a deeper longing, for our lives to matter - to have meaning. If this is the case, how do we find meaning?

Here are 6 suggestions:

Connect with your values.

When you reflect on those things that are most important to you - your values - you become more likely to approach challenges than to avoid them and are better able to see the meaning in difficult circumstances. If you can connect with your values, you can find meaning in everything you experience.

Find your tribe. 

We are social creatures. Even those of us who enjoy our own time and space need to occasionally connect with others. Finding people who share some common interests, or convictions, or just enjoy the things we do will go some way to meeting that inbuilt need for connection with others.


Giving to others doesn’t have to mean financially. Giving our time often seems harder but is often more valuable. Stopping for 5 minutes to chat to your elderly neighbour, becoming a governor at the local school or taking a meal around to a friend who is under the weather, makes a real difference to people’s lives.  

Find meaning at work.

Catch the vision of the organisation; how is it making the world a better place, and how does, what you do, contribute to that vision becoming reality? We need to know that what we are doing isn’t just making a profit for someone, but it is making a difference to the world.

Learn to be content.

Modern life feeds on the idea that having ‘more’ will give your life meaning, whereas in reality, it’s the opposite. A good way to build appreciation for what you already have, is every morning, to write a list of 6 things you are thankful for. Recognising that what we have is enough, is the key to being content.

Discover what your strengths are

Whether it’s using your imagination, drawing, teaching, logical thinking, caring, baking, making people laugh - we are all good at something. The world is a better place when we are doing what we are good at. Wherever you look, there are major global issues that we cannot solve by ourselves. But if each one of us does what we can with the resources we have, then just maybe, we can make a major difference. 

If positively impacting someone else’s life can make our lives more meaningful, asking “what can I do to make a difference to someone else’s life?” may be a better question than “how can I make myself happy?”. In this way, we may find that a temporary happiness is replaced by a deeper emotion; joy.