Active Listening

As grantmakers and philanthropists we often work with issues, people, organizations and cultures whose experiences and mental models differ. Showing up with the invitation and intention of active listening—curiosity, empathy, and attention—can help us co-sense what wants to come to be. “Seeing it new” is the promise of innovation through conversation, an act of stewardship where we lead not with our familiar expertise but with an explorer’s wide eyes for a changed horizon.

“Knowledge speaks but wisdom listens.” —Jimi Hendrix

How To Listen Well

  1. Let go of multitasking to put your attention on the person speaking. Let them be the most important thing in the world for a bit.
  2. Let go of judgement and your need to problem-solve to put your attention on the person speaking. In philanthropy we focus on how to solve the problem over how to listen for solutions.
  3. If you are having trouble concentrating: repeat the words the other person is saying in your mind as they are saying them. This really helps to bring focus.
  4. It’s not just about listening with your ears. Listen for the space between the words. Not just to the words coming across. Think of an antenna pointed toward another human. The heart, spirit and mind are listening too.
  5. Ask curious, open-ended questions to facilitate dialogue, thinking and listening. For example, when listening to a new idea for a field or community you might ask, “What about that is important to you? What’s next for you or your organization with this? Who do you know who disagrees with this idea?
  6. When they’re done, say ”Thanks for sharing that with me.” You give the person a sense of what you heard from them and what happens next with what you discussed.

Try This!

To practice active listening: find a partner at work to exchange dilemmas that you are facing for about 5 minutes each. There are many ways to structure an exchange like this. I use an adapted version from “Constructivist Listening.”

  1. Each person is given equal time to talk.
  2. The listener does not interpret, paraphrase, analyze give advice or break in with a personal story.
  3. Confidentiality is maintained.
  4. The talker does not criticize or complain about the listener or about mutual colleagues during their time to talk.

Afterwards, you debrief the experience of being fully listened to. How did it feel? Did it help you think differently about what you shared? In what way?

“Attentive listening means giving one’s total and undivided attention to the other person and tells the other that we are interested and concerned… We listen not only with our ears, but with our eyes, mind, heart and imagination, as well. We listen to what is going on within ourselves, as well as to what is taking place in the person we are hearing. —Carl Rogers

Created by Ted Lord,
The Giving Practice