Daniel Coyle

5 Things I Learned about Listening and Vulnerability from The Culture Code

I just completed The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. The book has transformed the way I think about what how listening and expressing vulnerability can ultimately build trust. Any coach that reads it and takes action based on the research is giving their team a competitive advantage. Here are five considerations to make when it comes to listening and vulnerability when building the culture of a team.


1. Interuptions

Avoid interrupting with wit and clever side comments. It gives the person that was trying to talk the impression that what they are saying is not important. Also, do not interrupt until it is necessary. Talking is not showing empathy. Coyle argues that the best salespeople rarely interrupt.

2. Gently ask questions and give suggestions.

Once it is appropriate to speak, gently ask questions that challenge old assumptions and make occasional suggestions. I like the use of the words “gently” and “occasional” here. The tone of voice goes a long way in making a person’s concerns seem petty or pertinent. I believe you are more likely to have your suggestion heard if you have made the effort to acknowledge what the other person was communicating.

3. Use protocols to include everyone.

Coyle does not use the term protocols specifically, but does describe them. Getting input from each member of a group is one suggestion he provides. In order to get buy-in, each person needs to feel like they are investing in solving a problem or making a change.

4. Avoid the positive, negative, positive sandwich.

Feedback sandwiches do not work. It might seem like a way to save face, but people usually will only remember one thing out of three. And usually that tends to be the meat of the sandwich (the negative). Instead, where time and the situation calls for it ask if you can give critical feedback. If a player wants it, good. If a player does not want it, it might be a bad time. Do not offer it. Chances are they will come back for it later.

5. Aim for mutual discovery.

“Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery.” The use of the word discovery instead of agreement is important. Agreement implies that one person had an idea and the other got looped into it. Discovery lends itself much more to a process of a team. Discovery implies that the problem is solved with a new angle. There is inherent enthusiasm in the word.


1. Advertise your weaknesses.

“We have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. If you want to create safety, this is exactly the wrong move.” Taking this a step further, there might be a moment where you need to challenge players and ask them to share what teammates have displayed vulnerability and how. This is especially prevalent now in an era of instant gratification and youth playing and failing.

2. Vulnerability is contagious, but so is bravado.

“People tend to think of vulnerability in a touchy-feely way, but that’s not what’s happening. It’s sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other. If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.” – Dr. Jeff Polzner, The Culture Code. I talked about weaknesses with Rick Gorman. He said you are a bad teacher if you give up on addressing weaknesses. It is much easier for a teacher to act in a culture where people are ok with having and admitting them in the first place. Clutching onto the myth that a player is infallible is dangerous.

3. Create an atmosphere where vulnerability is encouraged.

Consider challenges that build teamwork outside of playing hoops (blindfold dodgeball, scouting report Jeopardy, etc.). Maybe basketball vulnerability is awkward at first, but everyone will struggle in other areas. During the struggles you might get laughter or other indirect positive consequences as well. Players seeing each other vulnerable is one of those.

4. You don’t need a microphone to be vulnerable.

Micro vulnerability may be more genuine than large scale vulnerability in my opinion. By this what I mean is telling a whole group “I can’t make my free throws” can be damaging. Do we all stop everything we’re doing to coddle this player? Do coaches praise the lack of confidence to the rest of the team as model behavior? Instead if players partner up, they can express it to one teammate. It is much more likely that this will be true and there is a direct cue for what teammate will need to listen and gently help the player overcome the deficiency.

5. When teammates are vulnerable, leaders act.

Mistakes help to empower leaders. One of the vivid stories that Coyle used to make his point was a line of restaurants run by Dan Meyer in New York City. The restaurants are known for having exceptional cultures among employees and as a direct consequence superior customer service. Meyer was doing an interview with Coyle at a restaurant when one of his employees spilt a tray of water glasses. Another waiter came over to help pick it up. Meyer waits for is the energy level to go up from both of the employees after the glasses get cleaned up. Typically society will say “No crying over spilt milk.” The baseline expectation is not to cry. Meyer’s baseline expectation seems to suggest, “Smile more after spilt milk.” Especially for the person who is helping clean up this should be the idea. I am being empowered to lead because my co-worker made an error. What an opportunity.

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