Connecting the Intra/Inter/Structural Week: Active Listening through a Heuristic Approach by Dawn Valentine

Dawn Valentine
Dawn Valentine

Hi, my name is Dawn Valentine, founder of the Variable Scoop, based in Washington DC. Our work is centered on building capacity to create better programs that end human suffering and support social change.  As evaluators, effective communication is a critical factor in working relationships. Communication is such an ingrained part of being that it is easy to take for granted.

I became aware of deficits in my listening skills after a focus group when I forgot to turn the video recorder off during a break. There was a distinct difference between the conversation when the group began to talk amongst themselves. The words and tone communicated a far deeper emotional impact than the pre-approved questions. During the brief 15-minute break, participants expressed a sentiment of disillusionment and frustration with the program. In the video, I observed body language, cadence & tone of voice, and vocabulary as the participants expressed that their experiences were not understood. As I analyzed the data, there was a moment of self-reflection. Even though I used all of the skills I had for active listening, my focus group process was like an analytic model working with historical data to understand and predict behavior. This was frustrating because I wanted to be part of the deeper conversation to be a better evaluator. 

Clark Moustakas’s heuristic framework can be used as a systematic opportunity to investigate human experience by drawing attention inward on feeling responses in the role of the evaluator to the outward situation. There is an unshakable connection exists between what is out there in its appearance and reality and what is within me in reflective thought, feeling and awareness (Moustakas, 1990, p. 12).  

Active-empathetic listening has two sides: expression and reception. Reception or listening is an interpretative socially constructed practice conditioned by personal history and a culturally specific value system. Expression is offered in not just vocabulary but somatic movement and sound.  Formal education systems will teach students how to speak, how to synthesize information but not how to listen (de Sousa Santos, 2018). Learning how to practice active empathetic listening requires self-reflection and critical engagement of conscious beliefs and unconscious practices.

In conversation, there is a lot to become aware of: individual biases about the audience (e.g., vulnerable, weak or aggressive, etc.), the physical body in conversation, the tone, and sound of voices, the words used and received, as well as shared meaning in the conversation. While active listening tools were helpful, it was not enough. Using the six stages in Moustakas methodology: initial engagement, immersion, incubation, illumination, explication, and creative synthesis, as a framework to understand how verbal thought is processed as a whole became a primary tool towards my progression.

There is no easy path to increasing active empathetic listening skills. The benefit is that the more I look inward and create an awareness of the experiences that are felt and trigger my being, the better I can receive an experience of another.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Connecting the Intra/Inter/Structural Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from authors who are exploring intuition and the thread that connects the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and the structural in evaluation.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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