Did you ever notice that LISTEN and SILENT are spelled with the same letters—something to think about. Most of us don’t listen well. Listening is not a skill our society values. We’re taught to talk, not listen.
But you don’t learn by talking, you learn by listening. When you listen, you might hear something that shifts your perspective, sparks an ah-ha moment, reveals an opportunity, or illuminates a hidden challenge. Listening amplifies voices who aren’t often heard but have information you need to know. Listening connects you with insight you can apply to content, education, membership benefit, and program decisions—and listening connects you with other people.
Why we can’t sit still and be quiet
How often do we keep our mouths shut and listen? Not often enough, speaking from personal experience. Why do we feel compelled to get a word in? Three reasons come to mind.
Sometimes we want to show off what we know, give our take, or prove we have equal standing—it’s a quest for validation.
Sometimes we butt in because we want to let the other person know we understand or agree. We want to validate what they’re saying. We’re trying to show empathy or compassion—at least, that’s a better reason than the first.
And sometimes we want to jump in and solve their problem, which might be a combo of showing off and empathy.
The gift of listening
Listening has benefits for everyone involved. When you listen, you might hear different perspectives or solutions to the issues you’re facing.
When listening, you give the other person a gift too. Everyone wants to be heard, but it doesn’t happen that often because we’re all talking at each other and past each other. Some people are never given the opportunity to be heard because they’re at the bottom of the pecking order. Who isn’t heard on your association’s staff or in your membership? Don’t you think their perspective and insight might be valuable on some topics?
When you really listen to somebody, you’re demonstrating that their voice and opinion is important and deserves to be heard. Listening shows you value them. Listening validates and empowers them, it’s a sign of respect.
Listening doesn’t only happen in conversations, although that’s the most effective way to show people you care. Individual and group conversations are most fruitful when you ask the right questions—brave questions that get to the bottom of an issue and perhaps elicit things you rather not hear.
Ask questions that draw out the information you seek about a person’s real needs. Ask not only what they need to learn; ask what they’re trying to accomplish, where they get stuck, what they spend too much time doing, and what they worry about.
Listen with an open mind, a beginner’s mind. Although it’s difficult, try to set your assumptions and biases aside. Don’t take what they’re saying personally, especially about your programs.
Be present. Don’t get caught up in your own head. We often presume we know what the other person is going to say and begin to mentally formulate our reply. Or we’re half-listening as our mind drifts to other ideas, maybe a solution to their problem. People can tell if you’re really listening to them or if your mind is elsewhere.
Feedback mechanisms are a form of indirect listening, for example, a digital suggestion box, one-question polls in newsletters, and pulse surveys sent by email, like the ones from ASAE powered by PropFuel. Remember, people who share feedback are people who care. When they stop caring, they stop sharing.
Rasa.io suggests asking a “question of the month” at the end of calls or as a follow-up to email correspondence. You could also ask it at the end of a website chatbot exchange or on social media. They recommend “questions that elicit more than a yes/no response,” such as:
• If XYZ regulation passes, how will that affect your business?
• How are you dealing with issue XYZ in your office?
• What’s your biggest frustration at work right now?
• What skill do you need to learn to get promoted?
Another form of indirect listening is behavioral data. Pre-pandemic behavioral data is no longer useful because behavior has changed so much over the past year. Look at current trends to get a sense of what’s preoccupying members and industry professionals:
• Email opens and clicks
• Website page visits and clicks
• Community discussion topics
Who can you listen to more intently?
We have the tendency to listen to the people we interact with most frequently but not look further, for example, in associations, volunteer leaders. Make the effort to cast a wider net to other members and non-member professionals in your industry. Like you, they’ve changed and may not even know it. They’ve been exposed to new experiences, technology, people (a Zoom benefit), and events. Their work and home lives, habits, preferences, and maybe even values have changed over the past year.
Listen to how they want to learn and network in the future. Don’t assume everyone wants to return to in-person events. What percentage of your membership and market attended in-person events before the pandemic? In most associations, the maximum was one-third of members.
Granted, your board and budget want to return to in-person events, and members can’t wait to see people in person. But how many of them will actually show up?
Seek out under-represented voices—the views and opinions not usually heard expressed by leadership and staff. These voices might represent different career stages, demographics, specialties, business types and sizes, and geographic sectors.
Schedule conversations with industry employers. What skills and knowledge do their employees need to take on current and future challenges? What do they need to know to leverage emerging opportunities?
Pick the brains of speakers and instructors about what they’re seeing in the industry/profession, what’s missing in your educational content, and what’s no longer relevant.
Listen to sponsors and exhibitors. Many associations never ask their revenue partners about their needs. The typical bronze/silver/gold package doesn’t position them as experts, merely advertisers. If you want to establish a long-lasting revenue partnership, ask about their marketing goals, listen to their ideas, and find ways they can contribute their expertise.
Listen to project stakeholders. If a new LMS, AMS, or other technology platform is on your association’s horizon, the software’s success is directly related to how well you listen to stakeholders during the requirements gathering process. First, identify these people, and then listen to them, even the things you don’t want to hear. Listening builds project buy-in and ensures your new system will meet everyone’s needs.
For something we supposedly do every day, listening is a skill that few do well. When we meet a good listener, we enjoy being in their company. Differentiate your association by becoming the organization that truly listens to its members and professional community.