SVP Conference 2014: Do you hear … or do you listen?


Henry Berman


When you gather 300 plus people in one place, typically a lot of talking takes place. When those people are highly engaged SVP Partners, you can add lots of energy, ideas and volume. Recently, at the Social Venture Partners Conference in Austin, Texas, USA, I had the privilege of leading a session about the craft of listening.

I’ve found many people thinking listening is easy … just as they also often think giving away money is easy. But SVP partners know giving away money in an effective, engaged manner requires time, thought and effort, and they know the same is true for listening.

I began my session stating ‘I came here to speak. You came here to listen. If you finish first, please raise your hands.’ After a few laughs the underlying message about the fundamental nature of communication, and the recognition that it’s a two-way street, started to surface. We talked – and listened – a lot about the art of listening. We thought about why it is so hard to listen and wondered if the issue is really a difficulty in hearing?

Hearing or listening? What does each mean? Can you do one without the other? And does it really matter?

Although the two are often used interchangeably, they are different. Hearing is a physical act. It involves sound waves and vibrations. Listening, on the other hand, is how you understand what your brain hears. It involves taking the sounds, paying attention, interpreting them, and placing value on them as you put them into context.

Is it possible to hear but not listen? Of course it is and we’ve all been guilty. I, along with the Partners, engaged in a bit of ‘true confessions’ as we shared instances when we listened poorly. I ‘owned’ having been caught in this sort of scenario:

A colleague calls to share information from a site visit. Apparently there are some concerns about needs she identified that have not surfaced in the past. They catch you at home as you’re at the kitchen table, laptop open. You’re scanning some emails from work as well as your family. As your colleague speaks you grunt some occasional ‘yeahs’, a few ‘un hahs’ and probably a couple of ‘right … rights’.

I was being the classic passive listener.

At the other end of the spectrum one Partner told of being a selective listener when sitting in a meeting, smart phone below the table, checking emails. They were drifting in and out of engagement, typically cued by key words or phrases. They looked up only as their subconscious heard phrases like ‘increased contribution’ or ‘who will volunteer?’

We all agreed that active listening is when you really concentrate, pay attention and are engaged. When this happens not only are you hearing, you’re listening and able to answer questions, offer perspective and importantly … ask for clarification! Active listening means you think about what is being said, consider the message, place ‘value’ on what is said, and put it in context.

The session resonated with this group because a key part of engaged philanthropy is listening. Which raises the questions, when and where do you need to be a good listener? The answers are always and everywhere.

Listening can empower you as a leader, allowing you to gain knowledge and insight into issues. It is at the very core of cultivating relationships, with philanthropic partners, grantees and the community … literally anyone.

Exponent Philanthropy member Colleen O’Keefe, executive director of the Minnesota-based Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation, demonstrates the power of listening in her blog post titled I’m on a Listening Tour, and It’s One of the Best Things I’ve Ever Done.

As my colleague Andy Carroll observes: ‘Listening well leads to insight; insight leads to vision; and vision empowers bold and determined action. Listening also builds trusting relationships, which help the philanthropist develop partners for the effort to make change.’

As Andy notes, relationships are central to the impact you hope to achieve: without good relationships, how can you ever expect to work effectively with those you fund … or receive funds from? And it all begins with sound waves entering the ear. After that, it is up to you.   Do you hear … or do you listen?

Standing before a group of engaged SVP Partners requires active listening. I was conscious of my body language, facial expressions, and especially my listening. After all, it would have been a bit embarrassing to not hear during a session on listening.

Henry Berman is the CEO of Exponent Philanthropy. @Berman_Henry

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