Listening is the Ultimate Community Building Strategy - Tom RossListening is the Ultimate Community Building Strategy - Tom Ross

Listening is the Ultimate Community Building Strategy

Listening may be the most effective and under-rated community building strategy.

Listening in workplace communities

Your workplace is probably one of the best examples of community. For example, at my company Design Cuts, we have a team of 20 amazing people. Our team has all the hallmarks of a solid community. We are aligned towards a common goal/mission. We have silly inside jokes (the memes are strong in our team chat!). We create tremendous value from the efforts of the collective. We have our own culture, structure and rules.

If our team is a community, then as CEO, I’m one of our community leaders.

One of the traits of good leadership is humility. As leaders, we have to be willing and open to receiving feedback of how we can improve.

Have the humility to understand your weaker areas

I share a quarterly anonymous survey with our team, to gauge their satisfaction in their role, their perception of our culture and areas we can improve for them. I’m always grateful to see extremely high scores in these surveys, which validate the positive culture we strive to maintain.

This week, I had a candid chat with our CTO, Darren. In our conversation, I asked him for radically honest feedback about how I could improve as a leader. I specifically pressed him to shine a light on my weaker areas. Being the charming and lovely man he is, Darren was very gentle with his feedback, but as we chatted, I could identify two common threads in his kindly worded response:

  • Sometimes I’m so busy that when I drop feedback into a team chat, it can feel abrupt or less thoughtful than it could be.
  • I get too carried away and passionate in meetings, and end up talking too much. As a result team members are less willing to speak up.

Deep down, I knew both of these things, but it was incredibly validating to hear them both from a respected business partner.

I distilled this feedback into two action points: be kind, be quiet.

I’m so determined to work on both areas, I actually wrote them as a note and have that note placed prominently on my desk:

Listening: the ultimate community building strategy

I believe the impact of improving in these two areas will have a compounding positive impact on our team and internal culture/community.

Listening breeds a healthier culture

By listening more and speaking less in meetings, I will naturally empower our team to speak up. Here’s an example:

Team: Discussing a specific project

Me: Has urge to blurt out the answer

Me: Stops self, and remains silent to see what happens

Team: Gives the answer I was going to blurt out

Me: Can now praise the team and encourage their input

Following these revelations, I recorded a quick video explaining how I aim to improve and shared it with our team:

By publicly holding myself accountable for my own weak spots, I’m hopefully encouraging a culture of improvement, self awareness and accountability.

How to use listening as an effective community building strategy

The key takeaway is that kindness and listening are both essential traits in building healthy communities.

We often focus on ‘bringing value’, ‘serving our members’ and ‘helping’. However, despite positive intentions and a healthy dose of passion, this can actually damage our community. If we give our community no space to breathe, if we always jump in and provide all of the answers and all of the value, we’re not giving an opportunity for our members to contribute first.

10 Practical Strategies to Benefit from Listening in Your Online Community

Let’s make this practical! Here are 10 practical ways to leverage kindness, listening and humility as part of your community building strategy:

  • Before answering a community question – private message members who may have relevant insights to share and ask if they’d be happy to contribute first
  • Do you have members with specialist knowledge that makes them more suitable to contribute to a topic than you? In that case, tag them in the post and encourage them to share their wisdom.
  • When members contribute value in the community, message them with encouragement and gratitude. By doing this, you will elicit more of this behaviour in future.
  • On live calls and workshops with your community, get into the habit of asking ‘what do you all think?’
  • Often community members won’t speak up until asked. In order to help with this, don’t be afraid to address individuals directly (e.g.: ‘Hey Sandra – I’d love to get your thoughts on this.’)
  • Set a culture of collective contribution and humility. In our case, we regularly articulate that we value the opinions of our members and that we don’t always have all the answers.
  • Don’t rush to impose your opinions and feedback on members. You should take the time to listen and absorb all of the context that they are sharing. In speaking less and listening more, often your members will find the answers themselves.
  • Avoid being a control freak. Let go of the reigns a little and give members opportunities to host their own community sessions and member-led projects. Some projects may fail, but be willing to allow members to try, in an effort to empower them.
  • Don’t presume to know what your members want from the community. If you ask members regularly for their feedback and ideas, they will feel more involved.
  • Never be afraid of silence. We all have a tendency to fill awkward silences. When a member is speaking and pauses (for example on a live community workshop), don’t always rush to fill the silence. If you remain quiet for longer you will often let members work through things themselves.

In a recent article I broke down further strategies to get community members to contribute.

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