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By: Steve Zimmerman

Forest fires reinvigorate forests. It seems counterintuitive, but the burning returns nutrients to the soil, creating a fertile forest floor which leads to regeneration. It’s all part of the healthy life cycle and ecosystem of forests. Just as counterintuitive is the idea of writing a blog post about listening. But perhaps in the wildfire of today’s online society we can find the nutrients for the generation of healthier, stronger and more inclusive communities.

Every day we’re overrun by a firestorm of information – news, perspectives, facts and those ideas presented as facts. The early days of the internet brought the promise of democratization of information. This increased access would lead to a diversity of voices and allow us to reach each other more than ever before. It gave each of us a platform to share our opinions more broadly. Yet we seem to have forgotten the most important part – listening to each other.

The explosion of information, from the 500-channel cable universe of the 1990’s to online blogs of the early 2000’s and social media accounts of today, has allowed every opinion possible to be expressed. But even with so many options we tend to seek out views similar to our own. Confirmation bias, as it is called, is a “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” It allows us to think we’re hearing outside perspectives, but we’re only really listening to those that support our opinion. We then rationalize our own opinions and discount those that don’t align with our views.

Dictionaries define listening as the active effort of paying attention to hear something. Communication specialists tend to identify 4 or 5 different types of listening, but most theories include listening to understand. To achieve that higher level of listening, we need to be attentive, take a deep breath and truly understand where the other person is coming from. If we’re too focused on looking for an opening to respond with our own opinion, we won’t be able to really hear what the other person is saying.

All of us, in some way or the other, are guilty of not listening to understand. Nonprofits sometimes don’t actively listen to their core constituents to understand their needs. Rather, leaders and program managers make assumptions and build solutions into programming. Board members may not hear the recommendations of nonprofit leaders as they feel their “business experience” should outweigh the experience and opinions of professionals who work directly with constituents every day. Funders may not listen to and understand the complexities of implementing programs or the infrastructure required for success.

It’s a vicious circle where each audience finds reasons to discount the other’s opinion and to ignore that we share a common goal – stronger communities.

As consultants, we are also sometimes guilty of not listening. While we benefit organizations by providing an outside perspective which enables organizations to see things they may be blind to, we can also fall into the trap of offering quick solutions before really understanding the challenge. We come equipped with an assortment of assessments and tools we’re eager to deploy – and we’re often over eager to make the difficult work of nonprofit boards and staff a little easier. Rather than trying to figure out which tool to use, we also need first to listen and truly understand. We may bring perspective, but we don’t bring depth of organizational knowledge. We’re most successful when we mitigate this weakness with a deep partnership with leadership, each of us listening to the other’s perspectives, checking to make sure we understand, exploring possibilities and working together to find solutions.

Listening is not to be confused with agreeing. Rather, trying to understand the root of another’s perspective allows us to have a deeper conversation that can be more solution-oriented. Many of us regret the lack of civility in our communities today, and some blame this on differing opinions. But there have been different opinions since there were the first two people on Earth. What we’re missing is our ability to listen. When we talk about building community, we are not imagining a homogeneous environment, but rather a place rich with diversity of race, ethnicity, religious practices, perspectives, and thought. This is bound to include differences in opinion. But to truly understand where people are coming from and to work together toward a shared goal, we need to start by listening.

Each of us has the power to begin, so our goal this year is to listen. We will listen more to understand. We will take a deep breath and make time for deep conversations. This will lay the foundation to develop solutions and strategies together. In doing so, maybe our society can dial back the vitriol a bit, seek out and leverage the strengths that each of us brings and truly build the inclusive communities we all desire.

Okay, enough writing, time to listen. What do you think?