Ways that Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Can Build Virtuoso Listening Skills | Beth's Blog

Ways that Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Can Build Virtuoso Listening Skills


Flickr Photo by qwrrty

For the past few months, I’ve been facilitating a Nonprofit Emerging Leaders online peer learning project with Third Plateau Impact Strategies.  It’s a pilot supported by the Packard Foundation that tests different approaches to emerging leaders professional development.   We created The Emerging Leaders Playbook which served as the “text book” or content for the training.

An important part of the design is that this professional development isn’t just focusing on emerging leaders skill development, but is also includes supporting their mentors as well as opportunities for peer learning.     The fun part of the instructional design is selecting good assessments,  creating applied “homework” assignments where emerging leaders get to practice their skills at work, and providing guides for their mentors to support the emerging leaders.

The skills that we are focusing on are “networked leadership” skills both online and offline and working with self and working with others.   One area we cover is social awareness, the ability to recognize and understand the moods of other individuals and teams that we collaborate with professionally.   Daniel Goleman, who coined the term and concept Emotional Intelligence and brought it into the workplace, says that the competencies associated with being socially aware are:

  • Empathy: understanding the other person’s emotions, needs and concerns.
  • Organizational Awareness: the ability to understand the politics within an organization and how these affect the people working in them.
  • Service: the ability to understand and meet the needs of people you work with.

Essentially this all about carefully considering what people want, and planning to communicate with them in a way that is intended to meet that need.  The specific practice skills include these three:

  • Ask empowering questions
  • Pay close attention to interactions with other people. Be aware of what they say, how they say it and body language. Identify other people’s emotional states
  • Use reflective listening skills and clear communication to adjust

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How To Become A Virtuoso Listener: Practice, Practice, Practice

Emerging nonprofit leaders who engage in reflective listening are more likely to succeed.   They communicate more effectively, stimulate new ideas, and apply what they hear to improve their team’s productivity and results.  Like any other skill you want to improve, it helps to get a baseline assessment of your listening skills.   This assessment will give you a good sense of where you stand now and offers a structured approach to practicing based on your assessment.

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Ask Good Questions

As you can see from the above list, leaders that have solid listening skills know how to ask good questions that inspire people to think in new ways, expand their vision, and enable them to contribute more to a team or project.  In this HBR article about asking empowering questions,  the benefits are clear:

An empowering question does more than convey respect for the person to whom it’s posed. It actually encourages that person’s development as a thinker and problem solver, thereby delivering both short-term and long-term value: the short-term value of generating a solution to the issue at hand and the long-term value of giving subordinates the tools to handle similar issues in the future independently.

A disempowering question, on the other hand, undercuts the confidence of the person to whom it’s asked and sabotages her performance. Often, these types of questions focus on failure or betray that the questioner has an agenda.

The article offers as “cheat sheet” for empowering questions;

  • Clarity: “Can you explain more about this situation?”
  • Don’t Put People on the Defensive: Instead of “Did you make your sales goal?” ask, “How have sales been going?”
  • Inspire Critical Thinking: “What are the consequences of going this route?”
  • Reflection questions: “Why did this work?”
  • Inspire new ideas: “Can that be done in any other way?”
  • Challenge assumptions: “What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”
  • Create ownership of solutions: “Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”

Observe and Understand Body Language

What you say communicates only about half of what people hear.  According to research, 55% of the message you convey comes from your body language.  Understanding a few basics body language moves and what they mean – can help you be feel more empathy, help you read what is going on, adjust your communication by listening or asking questions.  Here’s a terrific cheat sheet for common body language signals and what they mean.

Mindful Listening:  Master the Basics of Focused Conversation

Conversations with other people at work are a basic part of what we do at work everyday. In the book, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness, and (World Peace), author Chade-Meng Tan offers 3 simple techniques to practice mindful conversations.

  • Full attention listening: Giving full focus and attention to the other person
  • Looping: This is a short-hand term for “closing the loop on communication.”  It is to verbally confirm what you heard from the other person and the other person confirming or clarifying.
  • Dipping: This is checking in with yourself and to notice any internal distractions or feelings – not to judge them but be aware.

In this article, 10 Steps to Effective Listening, by educator Dianne Schilling provides the basic building blocks to effective listening.  I’ve paraphrased and summarized these below:

1: Face the speaker and maintain eye contact
2: Be present, practice mindful listening to the other person
3: Don’t  judge the other person
4: Visualize the other person is saying
5: Don’t interrupt or jump into giving advice
6: Ask clarifying, open-ended questions when the other person pauses
7: Only ask questions to enhance understanding
8: Practice empathy for the other person
9: Give regular verbal or non-verbal cues that you are paying attention
10:  Observe non-verbal cues and what has not been said

Reflective Listening Techniques

Reflective listening is a technique that seeks to understand a speaker’s idea, then offers the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly.

Reflective listening skills are useful in all group settings, whether it is a team meeting, training, or interacting with co-workers and whether you are the facilitator or a participant.  These techniques are described in more detail in “The Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner.

  • Paraphrasing: Repeating back in your own words what someone has said, often using phrasing such as “Let me see if I’m understanding you.” This builds trust and establishes your objectivity. You end your paraphrase with “Did I get it?”
  • Drawing People Out: After you listen and paraphrase, you ask open-ended questions to draw people out. “Tell me more …” is one of several identified in the book. A simple hmm…. often works
  • Mirroring: This is repeating back verbatim what someone has said using their words. It lets the speaker hear what they just said and can build trust. It is used in brainstorming because it speeds up the discussion
  • Intentional Silence: Leaving space for quiet, an essential facilitation skill. It is basically a pause. It helps people process complex thoughts.
  • Acknowledging Feelings: People communicate their feelings, sometimes not directly.   You help raise everyone’s awareness by paraphrasing and drawing others out.     This is a three-step process: observe, pose a question that names the feelings, and paraphrase their responses.

These skills can be practiced whether leading a meeting or in a one-on-one check-in.      Reflective listening techniques can also be applied to meeting participation in these ways.

What are the best resources that you have discovered for developing good listening skills?  What is your best tip or advice for improving your ability to truly listen to people at work?

9 Responses

  1. Jennifer Pedroni says:

    There is a great book called Right Listening by Mark Brady that has about 50 listening practices. I have pick one or two things that I am working on and use one of the skills practices in the book to focus on. The book helped me to see some specific things that I didn’t realize I was doing and gave me a framework for practicing them both professionally and personally. I worked on not “shoulding” people (including myself!) for a while. He has a new book I just ordered called fierce listening.

  2. Beth says:

    Wow, Jennifer, really appreciate the recommendation …going to check it out

  3. Hi there 🙂 I really loved reading your blog and found it very informative. I am a nonprofit major and am trying to develop new skills on how to become a better leader and this really helped me a lot. The strategies you mention like mirroring and reflective questions in my opinion are great ideas and in my opinion are very effective and useful. Well done 🙂

  4. […] Does someone at your organization need to work on being a better listener? Bath Kanter gives us some Ways that Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Can Build Virtuoso Listening Skills. […]

  5. Teresa Kapphahn says:

    I found your post to be illuminating and a great refresher course in best practices in the work place. I own the Emotional Intelligence book you referenced and found it to be objective and something I would like to model in the workplace. Having an emotional connection with those you work with, I believe is an essential part of being in a great work environment.
    Thanks for all the outlined tips and points to be aware of.
    Teresa Kapphahn

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  7. […] list of resources for your improving listening skills, check out Beth Kanter’s recent blog Ways that Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Can Build Virtuoso Listening Skills. It should be required reading for every […]

  8. Elyse says:

    awesome post — listening skills are sadly oft-ignored in current corporate (and NGO!) training, thanks for compiling all this together, I’m definitely going to pass it out amongst the staff at my startup 😉

  9. […] to get better results.   In my training work with emerging nonprofit leaders,  teaching how to ask powerful questions and hone your listening skills is part of the leadership development curriculum and workshops.  Listening is also an important […]

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