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the hidden clues when you listen well in low trust group meetings
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Podcast Episode 123: the hidden clues when you listen well in low trust group meetings

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This episode of Deep Listening Impact Beyond Words explores the art of listening in diplomatic cross-cultural meetings, drawing insights from British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s discussion with Cindy Yu on The Spectator’s Chinese Whisper Podcast.

Key takeaways:

  • Focus on non-verbal cues: Ambassador Cleverly emphasizes that what people don’t say, their body language, note-taking, and response delays are often more revealing than their spoken words. This applies not just to high-stakes diplomacy but also to everyday workplace meetings.
  • Team listening: Effective listening involves individual attentiveness and collaboration within your team.
  • The power of silence: Pay attention to pauses in the conversation. Their length, frequency, and placement can signal reflection, emphasis, cultural differences, or the weight of potential responses.
  • Longitudinal listening: Notice subtle changes in language, body language, and overall tone over time during extended negotiations or repeated meetings.

Actionable insights:

  • Reflect on your listening habits: How much attention do you pay to non-verbal cues?
  • Practice team listening: Discuss group observations and interpretations after meetings to gain a more comprehensive understanding.
  • Refine your pause awareness: Observe how others use pauses and experiment with your own pausing to enhance meaning and impact.

By applying these insights from diplomatic listening to your own workplace interactions, you can improve communication, build trust, and navigate complex situations more effectively.



00:00 Oscar Trimboli
The hidden clues when you listen well in low-trust Group meetings.

In this episode of Deep Listening Impact Beyond Words, we discover the hidden clues ambassadors, diplomats, and Foreign Ministers notice when negotiating across countries, cultures, and conflicts.

In 2023, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was the first UK Foreign Minister to visit China in five years.
On October 2nd, 2023, during The Spectator’s Chinese Whisper Podcast with Cindy Yu, the Foreign Secretary had a wide-ranging and nuanced discussion about the multifaceted relationship between China and Britain.
The discussion goes for about 30 minutes, and I’d like to focus on a question posed by Cindy Yu around the eight-minute mark in the conversation.

How much do the Chinese listen?
In response, the Foreign Secretary takes about three minutes to provide a sneak peek behind the curtains of listening in a diplomatic cross-cultural, multi-language set piece meeting.
Then, about 15 minutes in, Cleverly expands on the concept of poker faces in discussions and the role of longitudinal listening.
Longitudinal listening is noticing the subtle changes that take place in spoken language, in the way language is being used, and the body language that emerges over time.
Cleverly’s description is very specific and explicit as he explains what he and his team are listening to and for during this four hour meeting.
He talks about the role of silence and note-taking. Not just by the meeting principles, also the broader teams, teams of between 8 and 15 people on each side of the table.

Why does this matter to you in your workplace?

I suspect you’ll rarely be negotiating across languages and cultures in high conflict situations, yet you’ll be regularly meeting with customers, suppliers, regulators, government officials, and other departments within your organization in group meetings.

Those groups may have a different approach, a different agenda, an agenda that may or may not be declared, an agenda that changes based on what you just discussed and maybe what you agreed or didn’t.

In these workplace meetings, the principal or the leader of the meeting on either side, you may have a set position or a series of specific points you want to make or positions you need to adopt based on your organizational or departmental or political requirements that you may need to adopt during a discussion or a debate or to make a decision.

I wonder if you’re regularly part of group meetings, whether you’re a leader of a group meeting or a participant. Do you and the leader listen as a team?
Do you plan about what, how, and when you’ll listen and notice during the meeting? And do you have a process and practice to debrief with your group after the meeting to notice what you heard and possibly what someone else noticed that was quite different to you?
How do you listen to the principal and how do you listen to the participants over an extended period of time, whether that’s a lengthy four-hour meeting or multiple meetings that take place over weeks, months, and years?

Listen to all the techniques that the Foreign Secretary discusses.

They are completely transferable into a workplace context, even when both parties speak same language, are part of the same organization, or culture.

During this discussion, you’ll also be able to understand what seasoned diplomats notice, including verbal, non-verbal, the pause, the pace of the conversation, the note-taking, and so much more.

Next, you’ll hear from the Spectator’s Chinese Whispers Podcast Host Cindy Yu posing a question to Foreign Secretary Cleverly.
05:02 Cindy Yu
Hello and welcome to Chinese Whispers with me, Cindy Yu. Every episode I’ll be talking to journalists, experts, and longtime China watchers about the latest in Chinese politics, society, and more.

There’ll be a smattering of history to catch you up on the background knowledge and some context as well. How do the Chinese see these issues?

Today, we’re talking about China’s relationship with the U.K., and so we’re live from Manchester from Conservative Party Conference for those of you listening at home, and I’ve got a brilliant panel.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, joining us for the first half an hour.

You say that you raised some of these tough issues with China when you were there. I think some people are skeptical of how much the Chinese listen or care about you raising that kind of stuff. In those tough conversations then, what do the Chinese say?

What does Foreign Minister Wang Yi say in response to that?

How does he react?
05:49 James Cleverly
I’ll give your listeners a little bit of a peek behind the curtain on how these things work. Often what people say in the room is not the most important thing to take note of.

Often the things that they don’t say or how they say it or the tone of their response, it’s that subtleties, which again, why face-to-face meetings is so very, very important.

So for example, when you have a bilateral meeting, you’ll have the two principals who do all the talking, and then in the room there may be up to a dozen other people…
06:24 Cindy Yu
Especially for the Chinese side.
06:26 James Cleverly
… yeah, who take copious notes and look very, very carefully.

And what my officials are doing, is whilst I’m talking with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, they will be watching how his officials respond to some of the things I say, what their body language says, what things they write frantically, which bits they ignore, which bits that they overlook, which bits does the Foreign Minister listen to carefully, how long he pauses before he answers, whether his answers of the pretty much pre-scripted responses to things,
For example, when I raised the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, I know exactly what he’s going to say because he’s said it before, but does he drift off script slightly or does he stay religiously to the script? Does he say it and say it and say it again, or does he skip past it? These are the kind of things, certain things I did really very much notice when we spoke.
When I talked about China’s commercial relationship with the rest of the world and how many countries including the UK are taking measures to safeguard themselves and that is having a slowing effect on trade volumes, and I made the point that whether it’s the Philippines, who I visited just before going to Beijing, or the UK or the US or Australia or others, we are all taking measures which are just nudging down our trade volumes with China.
And the cumulative effect is having a real impact on China. And when I had that discussion, he listened very, very closely. These officials were looking very intently.

When I had the conversation about Prigozhin’s attempted coup in Russia and how cracks are appearing and the longer this war goes on the more likely there is of some unpredictable catastrophic event in Russia, which would be bad news for the UK, bad news for Europe, but particularly bad news for a country like China, which has a land border, extensive land border with Russia, again, listened very, very carefully when we discussed that.

Now, his response was identical to responses I’ve had from him previously, except it wasn’t.

Those differences mean these messages are landing and we do have influence.

It’s not instant and it might not even be massive, but we do have influence.

I get very frustrated with my colleagues basically saying, “Oh, the Chinese don’t care what the British think.”

They really do, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a four-hour meeting with their Foreign Minister.
08:58 Oscar Trimboli
Three minutes jam packed with specific and explicit details about complex group listening.

My favorite quote was, “Often what people say in the room is not the most important thing to take note of. It’s the things that they don’t say or how they say it or the tone of their response.”

This is true in diplomacy as well as your workplace. Organizations have complex undercurrents of political agendas, sometimes discussed, often hidden.

Organizations have landscapes of cultural norms and subcultures that might avoid or engage with conflict, whether that’s aligned to the espoused purpose, strategy, and values of the organization.
I’m mindful that the Foreign Secretary is a political appointee and probably is likely to change roles more often than an in-country diplomat. Consequently, the Foreign Secretary’s reflections in this conversation and what he noticed were probably heavily influenced by the seasoned in-country diplomats and the travelling experts.

Whether you operate in a complex team negotiation or one-on-one discussions in your workplace, think about the influence that conflict has during a conversation and how it influences the quality of your listening.
During the discussion with the Foreign Secretary, I noticed 14 references to listening techniques during the three minutes.

What people say in the room is not the most important thing to take note of. What they don’t say, what they write frantically, what they ignore, what they overlook, what is the turn of their response, what matters to others, how they say it, who is taking notes, their body language, how long do they pause before answering, are their answers scripted, the role of repetition in a response and the contrast of listening as a team rather than an individual.

I’ve deconstructed this into some high-level themes.

The simplest starting point is that 46% of what we looked at were reflecting on the verbals and 54 the non-verbals.
The verbals fall into how they say it, the tone of their response, how long they took to pause before answering, are their answers scripted, the role of repetition in their response, and listening for what matters to others.

The non-verbals is what people say in the room is not the most important thing to take note of, what they don’t say, their body language, who’s taking notes, what they ignore, what they write frantically, and what they overlook.

I’ve put team listening in another box. It’s more about the context of listening rather than verbals versus non-verbals.
With 54% of the listening focused on non-verbals, this is an example of a higher consciousness or state of listening in this complex and nuanced environment.

Do you think you listen 54% of the time to the non-verbals in a group meeting or a one-on-one?

This is a useful point of awareness for you.

Are you spending half your time listening to the non-verbal signals?

Are you conscious of these aspects of listening in the moment or do you require some self-reflection after the fact?

I’d like to spend a little bit more time discussing the pause and silence.

What does silence and pause signal to you or what signals are you sending when you pause?

Consider the multi-dimensional aspects of the pause.
Pausing when you speak, pausing when they speak, your pause prior to your next statement or question, or the pause before they respond.

The pause during a discussion, where is the pause? Is the pause used for reflection or emphasis?

Is the pause part of their baseline speaking pattern or is pause unusual in their tempo?

Thinking about the length of the pause when you’re listening prior to any response, is that something you’ve even taken the time to think about?

It’s something that when I’m trying to improve on I just keep a track with a piece of paper and a pen to notice how many times they pause during the meeting.

All pauses have different color and shape depending on whether they’re at the beginning of the discussion or maybe towards the end.

How conscious are you of the multi-dimensional, longitudinal, and nuanced nature of any pause?
Do the pauses carry equal weight in all cultures? A long pause in the West may equal a short pause in the East.

So there’s another dimension to a pause when you think about it through a cultural context.

Is the pause related to understanding what’s being said, the content, or is the pause and its length the function of the consequences of their response?

Either way, I speculate you might be thinking about what pause signals in a very, very different way.

Now it’s time to listen to you

Send me an email,, with a subject “Diplomat” and your answer to these three questions.

How many listening techniques did you notice when the Foreign Secretary spoke?

Which ones would you apply immediately?
What did you notice about the nature of a pause in this discussion? Five people will win a copy of the book Ambassadors: Thinking About Diplomacy From Machiavelli To Modern Times by Robert Cooper.

Just email with the subject line “Diplomat” to go into the draw to win one of five copies of this book.

Thanks again to the Spectator UK, Cindy Yu, and her in-depth and nuanced podcast, Chinese Whispers. You’ll find the link to the complete original episode in the show notes, and it’s titled, Does China Care What Britain Thinks?

It was published in October of 2023. I’m very grateful for Cindy who provided her permission to use the clip for the purposes of expanding our listening.

I’m Oscar Trimboli, and along with the Deep Listening Ambassador Community, we’re on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the workplace, and you’ve given us the greatest gift of all, you’ve listened to us.

Thanks for listening.

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