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On Listening

There is a deeply held value in our culture to be independent, self-sufficient. Consequently, most of us probably prefer relationships that are reciprocal — those that have a give-and-take quality. We are uncomfortable being in debt to another. We look for opportunities to return a favor given. If we borrow, we also want to lend. In gift giving, we seek exchange, and we carefully weigh the value of those gifts to ensure reciprocity.

There are giving traditions in which great value is placed on outdoing one another in generosity. Among some Native American cultures in the Pacific Northwest, the potlatch is a custom of giving whereby each exchange involves a greater number and value of gifts. The exchange can escalate to the point of destitution for the giver. In the absence of such a tradition, most of us like our giving to be even-steven.

We’ve heard our board members and volunteers tell us that while they believe in the missions of our organizations and financially support our work, they cannot ask other people to give — particularly their friends and associates. They don’t hesitate a moment to reach out to those who are in need; they are quite comfortable being givers. But this deeply held value of independent self-sufficiency prevents them from asking for help, even though they acknowledge that they are not asking for themselves.

I suspect that many development professionals are not too dissimilar. As our relationships with our donors grow more intimate and the number and size of their gifts become greater, we can sometimes grow increasingly uncomfortable. We devise ways of giving back through recognition, small gifts of gratitude, dinners or luncheons, and other means. Somehow, these gestures don’t seem to be adequate, and we might become reluctant to continue asking. Even though we are not asking for ourselves, it is difficult to escape personalizing the gift giving.

However, I believe that we do have something of great value to give, to make the gift giving reciprocal. We can listen. Listening is no small gift. In an article entitled "Tell Me More," Brenda Ueland writes that, "…listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to."

Does that resonate with you? Can you recall a time recently when you were really listened to? How did you feel? As I have had such experiences, I feel treasured as something precious to the listener. I begin to share myself; I feel encouraged to be creative. I feel deeply content. It is a rare and wonderful gift to receive in our frenetic lives. Our donors are no different.

Why is listening so powerful? It stems from a belief postulated by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving that our deepest human need is the need to overcome our separateness, to leave the prison of our aloneness. We can only pry the bars of our prisons by deeply listening in an effort to understand one another. It’s the type of listening referred to as "empathic listening" by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Listening in this way is neither simple nor easy. Even Saint Francis of Assissi sought divine assistance as he implored, "Lord, grant that I may seek not so much to be understood as to understand."

Most of the time we listen from our own vantage point. According to Covey, we tend to listen in one of four ways: "We evaluate — we either agree or disagree; we probe — we ask questions from our own frame of reference; we advise — we give counsel based on our own experience; or we interpret — we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior."

Much of my listening to donors has been done in the interpretative mode. While I am genuinely interested in them, I am usually listening for clues that may indicate how they can be motivated to support an organization to a greater extent. While this mode of listening does require concentration and attention to the other person, Covey’s definitions reveal that I am nonetheless operating from my self-interest. Like many of us, most of my listening — whether to donors, family, friends or others — probably falls into the evaluate-probe-advise-interpret sequence.

To listen empathically requires us to suspend our self-interest and our hope of gaining something. We must possess a genuine desire to deeply understand another. As Covey explains the distinction, "Empathic listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see they world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

"Communication experts estimate that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60 percent by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel."

As Covey goes on to describe, there are techniques we can learn to become empathic listeners, but like anything else, they require frequent use to become habitual. The first step is to repeat the words that you have heard. The second is to rephrase the content using your own words. The third stage brings your right brain into operation through your reflecting how you believe the other feels. The ultimate step includes both the second and the third: you rephrase the content and reflect the feeling.

It’s a very different way of listening — or being listened to — for most of us. That’s what makes it so powerful. And it is more than just technique, as Covey reminds us, "You have to build the skills of empathic listening on a base of character that inspires openness and trust."

No wonder that Covey lists the desire and ability to understand, rather than to be understood, as one of the characteristics of effective people. Empathic listening is particularly important in our work with donors because it gives us, as Covey suggests, "…accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.

"If you really seek to understand, without hypocrisy and without guile, there will be times when you will literally be stunned with the pure knowledge and understanding that will flow to you from another human being. It isn’t even always necessary to talk in order to empathize."

A young development officer with whom we work recently shared just such an experience with me. He had called on a donor with the intention of asking for a significant increase in that donor’s annual gift. After the usual opening amenities, the donor began talking about an issue important to him that was not directly related to the organization. The development officer spent most of the appointment listening empathically, and spoke little about the organization’s programs and opportunities. At the close of the appointment, he went ahead and asked for the larger gift. The donor responded affirmatively without any hesitation.

Obviously, it doesn’t always happen that way. Fromm has good advice for us in that regard: "That this (to be able to listen) implies the necessity to have patience need hardly be said. If one does not know that everything has its time, and wants to force things, then indeed one will never succeed in becoming concentrated (in relation to others) — nor in the art of loving."

Covey’s observation is particularly useful in development: "But unless I open up with you, unless you understand me and my unique situation and feelings, you won’t know how to advise or counsel me. What you say is good and fine, but it doesn’t quite pertain to me." It underscores the adage that fund raising is not about money, it’s about people. To develop meaningful relationships with people and to understand them deeply requires us to listen empathically.

Keep Brenda Ueland’s words in mind the next time you prepare to meet with a donor. "We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, more magnetic, than the talker, and he is more effective, and learns more and does more good. So try listening…It will work a small miracle — and perhaps a great one."

We truly have a rare gift to offer our donors, and in so doing, we may experience the truth that Covey found: "The more deeply you understand other people, the more you will appreciate them, the more reverent you will feel about them. To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground."

This is a miracle that we can witness again and again in our work.

Suggested readings:

Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989.

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Loving, Harper & Row, New York, 1956.

Ueland, Brenda, "Tell Me More," New Age Journal, January/February, 1994.


Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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