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  • Writer's pictureBrett Davidson

The Neglected Art of Listening



Too often those of us in the nonprofit world sit in our offices and boardrooms, hashing out messages with our colleagues and allies - people who share our values and think like we do. We argue amongst ourselves for hours over exactly which words and phrases are most correct and precise. And then we wonder why our messages seem ineffective, while our opposition keeps making inroads.


Activists, and members of nonprofits often feel we are not being heard, and spend a lot of time trying to get our message across in various ways - TV, radio, social media, protests in the street. And when it feels like we are still not being heard - we try even harder. In a bid to get our message across and achieve our goals, we often forget a hugely important part of the communication equation - listening. And yet listening is crucial. We need to listen to better understand our audiences, where they are coming from and how they understand the world. Without that understanding, we cannot hope to communicate effectively.


I regularly ride the subway in New York City, and the train drivers are constantly making announcements - about which stop is coming up next, or more important messages about delays or rerouting. More than half the time the loudspeakers are so bad and the train is so noisy, you can hear that somebody is trying to say something, but it’s impossible to make out what they are saying. To me, this is a perfect example of too many nonprofit communications efforts. Like that driver we’re doing our duty, shouting into our loudspeakers making ourselves hoarse - but because we never put ourselves in the position of the passengers we never realise that absolutely none of it is getting across. We are simply talking to one another.


A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to join a number of human rights activists behind a one-way mirror, listening in on a focus group where a group of regular people were sharing their views about democracy, their country, women’s rights, and related issues. Afterwards, the activists said they were stunned: “they don’t talk about these issues the way we do,” “our concepts and messages are not connecting,” “people explain their opinions through stories and anecdotes, not through the abstract concepts that we like to talk about.” It was a revelation, and it prompted that group of activists to completely rethink their approach to communications. No amount of lecturing from communications experts would have had the same huge impact as this listening exercise did.


Corporations and political parties understand the importance of listening, and spend millions each year on audience research to help them craft messages that win. Most nonprofits simply don’t have the money for expensive surveys. But while we may not have the budgets for rigorous quantitative research, there are cheaper ways to learn how your audience thinks. Many years ago my colleague Shepi Mati and I worked with community radio stations across South Africa to map their communities and find out what was important to them - to help in planning programing and news coverage. Station teams simply walked the streets and asked people questions like:

‘What’s important to you?’ ‘What are the main problems and issues in this community?’ ‘Who are the local leaders you turn to in a crisis?’ ‘What topics would you like the station to talk about?’


Often, the results of this simple and low-cost exercise were a revelation - station members discovered all sorts of issues, views and opinions they previously had no idea about. And yet, sometimes even when we have done the research and know how our audience thinks, we insist on sticking to our own preferred messages because we are deeply uncomfortable with anything else.


Some time ago I heard a fascinating presentation by a Mexican human rights group. Their research told them that members of the community they worked with thought of abortion as a moral dilemma. But this group of women felt that to talk about abortion as a moral dilemma would betray their deeply held beliefs that abortion was a matter of bodily integrity - their preferred slogan was, ‘my body, my choice!’ Despite the clear evidence that this slogan was backfiring, they could not bear to part with it. It took them many months of internal discussion and hand-wringing before they were able to start engaging the audience on its own terms - and as soon as they did, they began making progress.


This is why I am talking about listening, not just about research. Listening is about more than research. Listening involves playing close attention to the other person, opening our ears and our minds to what they are saying, doing our best to understand, and then acting on that understanding.


However, listening is not only a crucial step in crafting effective messaging. Genuine listening can be hugely persuasive in itself.


In his excellent book How Minds Change, David Mcraney describes a campaigning approach called Deep Canvassing, which has repeatedly shown to be extremely effective in persuading people to support things like LGBTQI rights, or access to abortion. In contrast to traditional political campaigning where canvassers bombard voters with pre-planned talking points, Deep Canvassing involves having a long in-depth conversation with someone, listening to them carefully, and asking probing questions - until in the end, people come to see the contradictions in their own views, and in essence persuade themselves. When this kind of change happens, it is much longer lasting than that of traditional persuasion techniques. A deeper lesson behind Deep Canvassing and other similar approaches is that human connection plays a huge role in how we form and maintain our opinions and beliefs.


Listening is incredibly important as a way of supporting and showing solidarity with the people we aim to serve through our work. As a way of just being with people, and bearing witness. Author and activist Sisonke Msimang offers a powerful example in this story she told during a Moth event in New York. She describes accompanying a friend in crisis, and trying to figure out how to help, until she realizes she just needs to sit with her friend and be there for her. The kind of listening that Msimang describes in her story is not easy. It is not listening with the aim of helping or fixing things - it is listening that simply aims to be fully present.


I often struggle with this. In a world that values action, simply being with someone and listening in silence, can seem pointless. A few years ago I co-organized a weekend-long workshop on ‘radical listening’. In one of the exercises, participants were placed into pairs, and asked to simply spend time with one another, in silence. I was partnered with someone, and we spent 10 minutes in silence together, simply walking around the grounds of the venue. To me, it was unremarkable. That person returned to the workshop the next year, and shared that those 10 minutes of silence had given her a huge psychological breakthrough. It was a powerful lesson for me about the value of being silent and just listening.


Listening is crucial to democracy too. If we are to live together in a society with others who are different from us, we need to be prepared to listen to one another. I don’t mean this in a simplistic way - that if only we could listen to one another, we’d all get along. Listening is complicated. Our listening and ability to listen is shaped and distorted by inequality, power imbalances, racism, and prejudice among other things. There are also limits to listening - extreme situations where one might justifiably choose not to listen or interact. Listening may not bring us closer - it might cause us to realize how fundamentally we differ from and disagree with one another. The important thing though is the commitment to listening as a principle and a practice. The commitment to listening says we recognise others’ right to coexist with us, and that we have to figure out how to live together somehow


If we want to encourage a focus on listening, we need to show that we value it. This means allocating time and budget for listening-related activities. It also means things like showing appreciation not only for the people who talk a lot in meetings and take up space, but also for those who sit back and listen, and hold the space.


Listening and talking are two sides of the same coin - if we want to succeed at one, we have to put just as much time and effort into the other.


Originally posted on Hashtagnonprofit: Part 1 and Part II


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