Listen First, Speak Later

Most people I meet know the virtue of being a good listener. It’s at or near the top of every list of “habits” and “tips” for being a successful leader, colleague, and friend. In practice, however, listening can get overrun by tasks and to-do’s. We all need to get stuff done—and that means making decisions quickly and decisively, and taking swift action.

In our striving to have an impact and support others in achieving their missions, many of us can end up talking a lot more than listening. We learn to make judgments quickly, and then confidently propose our recommendations. As strategists and evaluators, we put together frameworks and five-point plans, and we aggregate myriad data into a mystifyingly simple strategy, theory of change, or set of findings.

Yet, never has the importance of listening become more apparent to me than in my work as a developmental evaluator. When I engage in developmental evaluation, most of my effort is in actively and intentionally finding opportunities to listen, as well as to cultivate an environment where people listen to each other.

And when done well, listening is much more than the words on a page of an interview transcript. I’ll liken that to listening to music out of your laptop speakers; you can do it, but it will sound a little fuzzy. Rather, intentional listening is like surround sound with a strong bass; you not only notice what is being said, but also how and why. You can feel the beat of the drum.

Recently, I read the article Art of the Nudge: Five practices for developmental evaluators from the Center for Evaluation Innovation. While none of the five practices explicitly mention listening, all of them require evaluators to have a keen ability to listen and hear what is being said about the program and its ever-changing context.

At the heart of practice #1—servant leadership—is the ability to listen “deeply and actively.” This is the one practice where listening is called out as an “indispensable skill.” In employing this skill, developmental evaluators took time to “pause” so that individuals and groups could reflect on and have the time and space to truly consider new opportunities, alternate ways of thinking and doing, and internalize concerns and challenges that were arising. The authors emphasize, “…giving answers runs the risk of causing program actors to disengage” and instead advocate that developmental evaluators use “carefully crafted questions that encourage transformative group reflections.”

In other words, listen first, speak later.

Listening surely has a role to play in the other practices, as well:

  • Sensing program energy—This practice is all about picking up on signals; be it a skeptical glance, crossed arms, an upbeat tone, or nervous laughter. Active and intentional listening (and observing) is critical to knowing whether to speed up, slow down, or stop.
  • Supporting common spaces—Listening helps an evaluator identify common spaces (i.e., “the physical places, moments in time, and virtual spaces where key actors [interact]”) and listening takes place in common spaces.
  • Untying knots iteratively—Challenges arise in every developmental evaluation—it’s in the nature of working in a complex, dynamic environment. In order to be effective in “untying” these inevitable knots, evaluators must listen to the concerns, needs, and challenges being surfaced from multiple perspectives, otherwise they run the risk of generating mistrust or being perceived as one-sided.
  • Paying attention to structure—Identifying misalignment between what is expected to be taking place and what actually is taking place is a critical role for the developmental evaluator. Listening to what is being said about and done within programmatic structures (e.g., steering committees, coalitions) can alert evaluators to the strengths and gaps that otherwise can often be taken for granted. As described in the Art of the Nudge, such listening may shift a conversation from how well the steering committee is working together to does this program even need a steering committee?

As a developmental evaluator, I must be able to listen and intently hear my client as they share information about what is new and the directions that they are considering taking. Even the slightest hesitation may provide an opportunity for a follow-up question that proves to be invaluable for spurring learning. By listening intently, developmental evaluators are able to identify themes and patterns and weave them together in a way that helps people better understand the “whole” of an effort, rather than just their individual parts.

I encourage all of us to reflect on the listening role of the evaluator. How can we intentionally embed listening into all of our evaluation activities?

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