Listening — It’s More Than Hearing by Deven Wisner

Hello! My name is Deven Wisner (@devenwisner). Like many of us, I wear a couple hats, including: Managing Partner of Viable Insights, educator and Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, and President-Elect of the Arizona Evaluation Network. Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that as evaluators we need to make space for listening, so I’m excited to share some lessons learned and techniques that have been particularly helpful for me.

Lesson Learned:

Our work at Viable Insights often consists of fostering buy-in to data-driven decision making. In fact, building capacity for leveraging data to inform action is the foundation of our work. However, who we work with varies so much — spanning from local non-profits to foundations, and even to private, for-profit organizations. This requires us to become familiar with our environment quickly…especially because we aren’t looking to deliver a product. Our goal is to facilitate a data-driven culture. Instead of stressing to become experts in every arena, we’ve learned to partner with our clients (we call them partner-clients!) to bring the other piece of expertise to the equation.

We talk about bringing clients along, but something that can be missed is how we communicate with them. It’s not enough to invite clients to a meeting…we need to take care in how we engage and listen — realizing that our voices as perceived experts can easily overshadow. For us, this has not only been crucial to creating partners in the use of data but also challenged the expectation that we know everything. Because guess what? We don’t. This doesn’t mean we don’t scale our knowledge up quickly…but instead, mutual learning experience is created.

Hot Tips:

So, I mentioned listening — what do I mean by that? Here are some tips from one of my favorite authors, Robert Bolton and his book, People Skills:

  1. Accept that you don’t always need to know what you’re going to say next.
  2. Redefine your definition of listening; listening isn’t just hearing someone talk, it’s also “…suspenseful waiting.” In other words, we need to be engaged and ready to process what someone says.
  3. Maintaining self-awareness of non-verbals; so much of what we say is actually what we don’t say. As consultants, we’re viewed as experts — on something that isn’t always accessible. Staying attuned to how we position ourselves (e.g., facing someone, keeping limbs loose versus crossed and tight) can help to create a more inviting space.
  4. Intentionally responding through “Reflective Responses”; this means taking a moment to analyze, pre-digest, and share back our initial deduction…as Bolton suggests, this can “…act as a mirror to the speaker.” This is conveys we’re listening, care about what’s being shared, and provides an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings.

We know interpersonal effectiveness topics are pivotal to our work, which is why Arizona Evaluation Network’s Conference theme is Communication, Facilitation, & Interpersonal Effectiveness: Core Competencies.

Continue the learning and dialogue with us 4/2-4/3 in sunny Arizona! All are welcome!

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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Listening — It’s More Than Hearing by Deven Wisner”

  1. Hi Devon,
    Thank you for your post. Your topic and tips on listening is important in everyday life and in many professions. I work in healthcare and it is equally important to see how someone is talking than just listening to their words. Family and patients unintentionally may censor their words about their true thoughts. There are many who are afraid and uncomfortable in hospital settings. By truly listening to their words and actions, we are able to alleviate many of their apprehensions. Your tips are a good reminder to all who work closely with others where a level of trust is required.

  2. Hi Deven,
    Thank you for this blog post. It got straight at the heart of some of the work I do. I am an elementary school administrator and, as such, am in the position to evaluate a number of programs of various types and of differing scales. The common thread, of course, is people. All of the programs are run by and run for people. Listening, I have come to realize and as you share, is a vital, central part of the evaluative process (from the very early beginnings to the attempts at utilization). Have you, though, ever encountered a partner-client (I appreciate that term!) who has been resistant or unwilling to participate in a meaningful way, or unwilling, in effect, to give you anything to listen to? Do you have strategies for this situation?
    Laura Gale
    Alberta, Canada

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