Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Listen Up!

By Kathy Young, Director of Operations.

Do you ever find yourself in a conversation and while the other person is talking, instead of listening, thinking about what you're going to say when it's your turn to talk? According to numerous communication experts, quite a few of us do this on a pretty regular basis. While this is natural, and seems to serve the purpose of helping us make our point, in reality, our inability to listen effectively is counterproductive.

I was recently in a group that was discussing The Communications Catalyst,  a book by the co-founders of Conversant, a communications consulting firm. Full disclosure - I haven't read the entire book...but, I was intrigued by the examination of the various "positions" that we adopt while in dialogue with others. The authors employ a gauge approach that puts Pretense on one end of the spectrum and Authenticity on the other end. In between are Sincerity and Accuracy...which confounded me at first because initially, I didn't see how sincerity could be that far from the ideal approach (authenticity).

I would do the authors and the concept a huge disservice if I tried to summarize the nuances and lessons outlined in the book, so for that, I suggest you check it out yourself. However, the point that the discussion that resonated with me most was about how important it is to listen and really try to understand the perspective of your conversational partner(s). In our work in communities, with steering committees, work groups, and community input participants, it's vitally important that our teams listen effectively. In fact, our professional group facilitation training for new team members emphasizes this point, and can easily be applied to interpersonal conversations as well.

There are basically four core points that we adhere to when facilitating focus groups:
  1. Start with a blank piece of paper (literally... we love our flip charts).
  2. Give the group your undivided attention and encourage them to do the same.
  3. Talk as little as possible so that you can hear the concerns and ideas the group has.
  4. Confirm and clarify what is being said, using each speaker's own words.
Even after working in hundreds of communities and understanding that there are some fundamental economic development "building blocks" that help make every community successful, we are committed to the idea that every place is different. After 14 years doing this work, we know we'll only be able to develop a strong strategy if we listen to the people who live and work in the community. Its relatively easy to appreciate the differences between a Joplin, Missouri and an Austin, Texas, but less so in communities that look to be similar on the surface. Our job in every conversation is to listen effectively and determine what will help each individual community be more competitive.

As has been recalled many times in the past two weeks since his death, Steve Jobs often differentiated between inventing and discovering. Considering that Jobs inspired and excited entrepreneurs and fans worldwide, but seemed to perch above us mere mortals, it can be easy to overlook how empowering andtransferable that notion of discovery is in any situation. From my perspective, the act of discovery occurs when any individual takes their capacity to create change and improves upon the current situation by forcefully applying imagination. On the community level, thinking creatively and listening to everyone in your conversation is where new ideas and solutions are discovered.

Two of our teams recently conducted stakeholder input sessions in Jackson, Mississippi and Madison, Wisconsin and came back with new ideas and a better understanding of these communities. These trips are always at the beginning of our processes so we can be sure we hear from a diverse group of community members even before we've drawn any conclusions from the research or begun to make recommendations. Whether your community is going through a strategic planning process or continuing to implement previously developed strategies, be sure that you take breaks from the daily work to listen to your partners and stakeholders. It can make a world of difference.