5 Tips For Achieving Emergent Listening

Listening is one of the most important skills—and one of the hardest—to develop (funny how that always seems to be the correlation). The highest level of listening, emergent listening, is not just a tool for picking up facts—it’s a way to achieve a genuine connection and build understanding from a different perspective.

It’s tempting to just take in information and head for a solution, but with emergent listening we can go beyond that. When you purposefully put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can dig deeper into their ideas and unpack them more fully. This kind of listening is essential for conducting customer interviews, fostering collaboration with colleagues, and connecting one-on-one with your team about their personal and professional development.

But like any other tool or skill, emergent listening (aka level 4 listening) takes practice. How do we get to that level? We thought it would be fun and enlightening to tap you, The Design Gym community, for answers to that question.

We hit up Melissa Wong, Co-Founder of New Women Space; Gabrielle Santa-Donato, Fellow and Lecturer at the Life Design Lab at Stanford; and Peter Rossetti, Transformational Designer at uppercaseP, who gave us 5 pieces of advice for achieving that 4th level of listening.

1. Design and Facilitate the Conversation for Emergent Listening

Emergent listening rarely just happens on its own—it takes planning and intention. So if you know you’re going into a situation where you need to use emergent listening, set yourself up for success ahead of time! Design and facilitate the interaction in a way that encourages emergent listening.

Melissa: I’ve experienced level four listening when I’m in a space that has intentionally been set aside for innovation—for instance, company hackathons, team off-sites and design thinking workshops. Oftentimes, this is made possible by a facilitator who can set the rhythm and topics for the group, allowing space to dream and brainstorm, while still keeping to a schedule with a concrete goal in mind.

Gabrielle: Space is a huge, huge part of it. It helps to set up a space in a way that allows for psychological safety—it should be comfortable, welcoming and private. That puts everyone at ease and makes it easier to build rapport.

Peter: Setting is super important. You want a place that isn’t distracting or noisy—it’s tough to have a meaningful conversation in a nightclub!

2. Relinquish Some Control & Allow the Conversation to Flow

It’s easy to get caught up in what you want to say during a conversation, but that’s not necessarily the best way to achieve emergent listening. If you’re just waiting to speak, you’re missing out on what everyone else is saying! Before you jump in, think about what you’re planning to say. Does it add to the conversation? If not, it may be best to keep mum and let the flow of the conversation continue.

Melissa: Level 4 listening can be challenging when I’m in a group conversation and register that I have a personal interest in the topic being discussed. It can be difficult to find the best point of entry and the best tactic to use when inserting my own opinion or experience. At those times, I know I need to quickly ask myself what I am truly contributing by speaking my perspective.

If you don’t feel that you’re adding anything constructive to the conversation or the moment has passed, it takes self-control to let the conversation move on and to keep your ear on where the conversation currently stands. It’s all about contributing to rather than detracting from the group discussion.

Melissa: In order to reach emergent listening, you also have to leave your personal opinions and biases at the door. That may be tough in general, but it’s especially difficult when you already know the people in the discussion. When you already have a relationship with those folks, it can be hard to give up your pre-existing feelings about them and be truly empathic. It’s going to take an extra effort to remain as objective as possible.

Gabrielle: You have to remove your own desires and goals from the conversation, and sometimes even the desires and goals of the person you’re helping. You don’t want it to be about your personal relationship to the content or your personal ideas—your focus is on the challenge at hand and the needs of the user.

3. Work Your Way to Emergent Listening

You can’t go from zero to emergent listening all at once. That’s like trying to run a marathon without stretching first. Start from the beginning with the understanding that you’ve got 3 levels to work your way through before you can get to level 4.

Melissa: It can be helpful to have defined periods of conversation dedicated to different levels of listening. You may start out with just conversational level 2 listening and then consciously move into empathetic level 3 listening. Explicitly signaling to the group that you’re working to be empathetic—while holding the big picture perspective—can help everyone contribute to moving successfully through each level.

Peter: As you get started, it’s ok to move in the direction that someone else wants to take the conversation. Say you’re working with a negative person and they start out the conversation by talking about how bad their day has been. Allow that to happen. Acknowledge it and then make a micro pivot—“I’m sorry it was so shitty, I’m glad you’re here and excited for us to hang out.” You don’t have to just steamroll over small talk— you can use it to move forward.

4. Find a Connection and Build Trust

Finding a connection is a natural way to build trust. And that trust comes in handy when trying to achieve emergent listening.

Gabrielle: Trust, credibility, and commonality can really bring you to true emotional understanding—you can feel the energy of that kind of connection. Building a deep relationship can take time, but there are ways to quickly establish a felt sense of trust quickly. Look for something you have in common—maybe you like the same sports team or you have kids of a similar age. That’s a ready-made connection. And it can give you that “felt sense” (“Oh! This is my type of person!”) that lends credibility to a conversation.

I also believe there is such a thing as jiving with someone. Most of us have experienced those conversations that started with a simple commonality or just a spark and ended up delving deep into our pasts or our beliefs. Put two passionate people together with enough to share and enough to learn from and you have the potential for an emergent conversation.

Peter: To support a rich, whole-hearted conversation, you want to have connectivity. You need to feel like you can really talk to each other, like you’re both in this together.

5. Pay Attention to What You’re Doing

Emergent listening can be hard work! You’re paying attention to what the other person is saying, doing and feeling—but that’s not all. You also have to be aware of what you’re doing to help (or hinder) emergent listening. Be mindful of how you’re acting and where the conversation is going and make sure you’re maintaining a connection with the other person.

Peter: “I” statements and creating a physical feeling of connection are super important for achieving level 4 listening. You need to show you’re paying attention—body language is crucial. Make lots of eye contact and lots of eye-to-lip contact. At the same time, avoid body language that signals that you’re closed off, like crossing your arms.

Gabrielle: Your body language and verbal cues can show people that you care for them. Acknowledge everyone in the room so they feel like they’re all equally important to the conversation. I use my body to express things often, like nodding when I really believe or “get” something. I enthusiastically mirror other people’s body language and focus on letting them know that I’m there with them, confirming and building on what they say.

Melissa: Emergent listening is almost like a practice akin to meditation or visualization. You need to train your awareness to be in the room but to also see yourself from a distance. I find myself switching back and forth between perspectives—where I currently stand, and being a fly on the wall in the room, like a confused novelist switching between first person, second person, and third person. It is no small feat!

Level 4 Listening Changes the Game

You’re probably already pretty good at listening to gather information or listening to understand another person’s point of view, and those are crucial skills. But emergent listening can take you even further! It opens up a realm of possibility where you can truly see things in a new light. That genuine, intentional connection with another person is where you find real insight and start to see possibilities for innovation. Emergent listening lets you go past the problems of today and start to explore pathways into the future. It’s where the magic happens!


Melissa Wong is the co-founder of New Women Space, a vibrant and affirming community-led event space centered on gender equity, creative expression and celebration of identity. She invests her time in initiatives that foster agency and belonging, designing ways to improve client and member experiences for companies that focus on connection, inclusion and transformation.

Gabrielle Santa-Donato is a fellow and lecturer at the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. She teaches courses on how to apply design thinking to the particularly tough problem of deciding what you want to be when you grow up and mashes up design thinking, mindfulness, positive psychology, career strategy, and other fields to create innovative learning experiences.

Peter Rossetti is a Marketing Branding Consultant at uppercaseP, where he works at the intersection of design thinking and human behavior. He’s also a 2-time winner of the America Graphic Design Award (and several other honors).


Jane Garcia Buhks
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