Updated: Jan 23
You’ve probably heard the adage, "We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak." But in our individualistic, time-is-money society, listening is usually the first thing to go. That’s why listening -- radical listening -- is more important than ever.
What’s Radical About Listening?
"Radical listening" is a term used for a disciplined practice focused intently on the person talking while removing our personal biases and filters. This discipline allows you to honor others’ experiences, thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, this is not how most people listen on a regular basis, which is why it’s a radical idea.
Well-known author Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, also includes listening as a successful habit: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” By seeking to understand before responding, we demonstrate respect, build empathy and learn new perspectives while strengthening relationships and ultimately developing the best solutions to challenges, both professionally and personally.
Listening And Leadership
When I announced I had accepted my role at Greater Twin Cities United Way, people asked, “What is the first thing you’re going to do?” My response was, “Listen.”
This was surprising to some, as a common assumption is that strong leaders come in with a point of view, ready to make changes. Listening is often seen as passive, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Listening means you’re placing emphasis on understanding the points of view of your key stakeholders and hearing what is said (and not said) to inform an effective strategy built on real insights and consensus.
When I meet with my direct reports, I always begin with a check-in and the question: “How are you coming to this conversation? What’s top of mind for you today?” This is especially important for those of us whose leading orientation is efficiency. Our teams -- the people driving and doing the work -- need to know we care, which contributes to higher morale, increased productivity and better work products. Now that’s leadership!
Radical listening is also the prioritization of listening in the decision making process. In the midst of major decisions or transitions, I often reflect on key stakeholders and how they will be directly impacted by my decisions. Then, I seek out those stakeholders and use their feedback as a check against where I ultimately land.
When Greater Twin Cities United Way started the process of developing a new community impact strategy to better serve people experiencing poverty, the first step was radical listening among our core stakeholders.
We met with more than 100 nonprofit partners, donors, independent subject matter experts, volunteers, board members and staff. We shared our initial plans and then asked them, “Are we thinking about things in the right way?” We used their insights to form our strategic plan and then tested the plan with the same group for further feedback, stating, “Here’s what we heard from you. How well did we capture your thoughts?” This approach worked well and allowed us to move into the execution phase confident that we were aligned on areas of greatest need in our region.
Sometimes, people will be disappointed with a decision you’ve made. It’s nearly impossible to please everyone all of the time. However, I’ve found that demonstrating that I heard and valued their perspectives in the plan development process makes them more willing to extend grace.
Breaking Down Barriers
Time, not surprisingly, is a major barrier to radical listening. As you well know, the nonprofit sector requires extreme efficiency with time and resources (I often joke that nonprofit professionals can make a dollar out of 15 cents). There certainly are situations where efficiency may seem more important than taking the time to really stop, listen and recalibrate, but efficiency doesn’t need to run counter to continuous improvement.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned the best way to combat this barrier is to be intentional. Commit to a reflective practice, and bake it into your process. This could work in many ways, depending on your preferences, personality, learning style, daily routine and so on. It doesn’t matter how you reflect. What’s important is that you do and that it contributes to continuous improvement.
Another barrier is making assumptions about people, which puts our personal biases front and center. For example, my work is focused on community access to stable housing, healthy food, education and jobs. Many assume because someone needs a service, they don’t have answers to their challenges, but that’s not true. They have the innate wisdom to share, based on their own experiences. The best way to combat this barrier is to check preconceived notions at the door.
• Start a conversation, clearly stating your intentions.
• Remain aware of personal biases.
• Listen and focus to the best of your ability.
• Reflect what you’ve heard from the other person.
• Proceed and test.
By embracing radical listening, you can build trusting relationships, gain buy-in, discover new ideas and more effectively achieve your organization’s goals.
- Acooa B. Lee Ellis
This article originally shared on Forbes Nonprofit Council.