Organizations should aspire to use quality listening

Friday, May 25, 2018 2:56 PM

There is a line from the comedy movie “Dumb and Dumber” where goofball Harry says, “She gave me a bunch of crap about me not listening to her enough or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention.” It is funny, but also sad because this is so common.

We are generally not great listeners. How often have you been planning your next words while you were supposedly listening to someone else? It takes practice to improve our active listening skills in this world of excessive competition for our attention.

Quality listening is simple. It does not require immediate analysis, follow-up commentary or solutions. The purpose of listening is shared awareness. Ultimately, awareness can lead to great progress, but it is not always instantaneous, nor should it be. When we allow ourselves to hear many ideas, we can eventually borrow pieces of them to form our individual viewpoint.

Aspiring to use quality listening should also apply to organizations, not just individuals. This includes actively gathering viewpoints from diverse sources such as clients, donors, partners, experts, volunteers and staff members. An organization needs to engage with and hear the community to help determine the best path forward. Overreliance on internal voices or limited sources is analogous to listening only to the voice in your own head or to the one person sitting next to you. Our thinking would be very narrow if we limited ourselves in that way.

At United Way of Southwest Colorado, part of our mission statement says we engage the “collective caring power of the community.” We can only do that by actively listening to our communities, and we have recently learned some new tools to help us improve in this area. The Collective Impact model we are using in our local counties is helping us to develop collaborative strategies to improve child and family well-being that would have never been imagined without bringing disparate voices together and really listening to each other. For example, at a recent session in Montezuma County, a creative, coordinated effort to reduce food insecurity among children through cooperation of local restaurants, nonprofits and school districts was proposed and enthusiastically adopted. No single entity could bring this about by itself – it took significant listening to find how their strengths can combine to make good things happen.

We will be continuing to have these listening sessions (we call them “Turn the Curve”) over the next couple of years throughout our region.

The outputs of the sessions help us to collectively tackle some of the community’s toughest problems that a single organization cannot address effectively on its own. I hope you will come to share, listen and help us do this important work.

Another great comedian of our time, Alan Alda, shared some wisdom in these uncharacteristically serious words: “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” We are listening, and thank you for Living United.

Lynn Urban is president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado.