Since 2003, Rebecca Tseng Smith has led sessions about listening at CASE’s Inspiring the Largest Gifts of a Lifetime Conference. She works with development professionals on improving how they communicate with donors, so she challenges them to take a listening test.
The test, from author and listening expert Madelyn Burley-Allen, asks questions like: How often do you tune out people who are saying something you don’t agree with? How frequently do you listen without judgment? What about interrupting or daydreaming while a person speaks?
“Every single time I do this, someone who thinks they are a good listener is shocked that they score 50% or worse,” said Smith, an advancement veteran who’s currently the Senior Executive Director of Development at the University of California, San Diego, U.S.
It’s meant to be a tough assessment—“athletic listening” is what Smith said the test pursues—and it often reveals how advancement professionals aren’t listening as well as they think they are. Although many in the field understand that listening is a crucial ability for those who engage with donors, alumni, and other constituents, it’s also a critical skill for leading an advancement team and working with other colleagues within educational institutions.
“I always get the question, ‘Am I answering this assessment from the perspective of my work life or my home life?’ And I wonder, ‘Why would you only try to listen well in one area of your life?’” Smith laughed, while acknowledging that this is a continuing journey for everyone. “Listening is a skill you can actually learn.”
So what are advancement leaders doing to build better listening practices and improve their skills? How important is active, deeply engaged listening—not just when it comes to constituents but when it comes to the internal workings of a team, department, or division? How critical are these habits to strengthening educational institutions?
Why Aren’t We Listening?
Smith has a long-running curiosity about the nature of good listening. She likes to reference a statistic that’s frequently cited in business articles about listening: Scientists believe that humans speak at a rate of 100 to 200 words per minute but can comprehend anywhere between 400 and 800 words per minute.
“This is why people are tempted to multitask; they’re using that extra space,” Smith said. “But instead of listening while doing other things or thinking about yourself, it’s better if you use that space to really focus and listen.”
Karen Cairney coaches leaders inside and outside of advancement as the founder and CEO of Cairney & Company, a global consultancy based in Glasgow, Scotland. She said that few leaders she’s worked with are deeply aware or conscious of their listening skills.
In addition, Cairney—who has presented sessions on leadership at CASE conferences—acknowledged that many leaders put pressure on themselves to provide an immediate response to a member of their staff or to make a statement instead of listening to what is being said before responding.
“When coaching leaders, no one asks me, ‘How can I listen better?’” she said. “More often than not, most of us think we’re good listeners. When we truly listen and use powerful questions to probe and understand, we get to the heart of the matter.”
Not only do many leaders think they’re adept at listening, but most people think about listening in ways that are wildly different from what’s actually happening, according to Rachel Ciporen, Executive Coach and Facilitator at the Columbia University Coaching Program in New York City, U.S.
“People think listening is a passive action,” said Ciporen, who also leads a module in the CASE Academy on emotional intelligence. CASE Academy is a leadership development program based on the CASE Competencies Model, which features eight key skills for successful advancement leaders—including leadership, relationship building, and integrity.
“If you were to ask a number of leaders about the most important competencies, you’d get critical thinking, strategic thinking, emotional intelligence. … Underpinning all of that, and more, is listening. And listening is a very active process,” says Ciporen.
In some ways, the perception of listening as a passive experience is a self-fulfilling situation. Leaders—and staff—often equate the act of talking with strength and the act of listening with inactivity. If people think of listening as a passive act, then that’s how they treat it.
“We typically spend most of our time listening on a surface level,” said David Langiulli, a former fundraiser who is now an executive coach and leadership trainer at Fundraising Leadership, based in Naples, Florida, U.S. “We’re listening, but mostly to the voice in our own head: ‘Is this person making sense? He’s crazy! I don’t agree! I’m getting hungry...’”
Langiulli thinks that higher education leaders need to understand what truly attentive listening can be and then seek training on how to improve.
A Different Approach
To help frame a conversation about listening and encourage better habits, Langiulli breaks down the act of listening into three levels. He and many other experts communicate about “levels” or “layers” of listening with shades of the same terminology. In Level 1, the listener is judging what is being said and is looking to respond. Level 2 is attentive listening, where the listener is paying strict attention to the content of what’s being described. Level 3 adds intuition to the mix, with the listener paying attention to tone, body language, and what goes unsaid.
“Most fundraisers worth their salt are pretty good at Level 2,” Langiulli said. “The first two levels live in the left brain, but Level 3 is intuitive listening, and intuition lives in the right brain. People call it a ‘gut feeling.’ And unfortunately, in higher education, be it advancement teams or other leadership, this has gone by the wayside. It’s all about metrics. Sure, let’s keep score, but something enormous is lost if you’re not paying attention to context.”
In a larger sense, attentive listening is a demonstration of respect, according to Ciporen. It goes without saying that good leaders display their respect and appreciation to direct reports and colleagues.
“But what does respect look like? It is listening from the other person’s point of view while being connected to a mindset of curiosity,” the executive coach said. “How we listen shows how much we value that person. In addition, when you’re a leader, you’re also going to miss out on some good ideas without well-developed listening habits.”
Both Ciporen and Langiulli agree that good listeners practice good self-management. They are aware of their focus and can keep it trained on the other person in the conversation (using that “extra space” that Smith talked about).
“You have to be in the moment,” Ciporen said. “You can’t listen if you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner later or trying to accomplish something else.”
Cairney expressed the importance of reshaping how everyone, especially leaders, thinks about listening as not just “hearing,” but seeking to understand. Naturally, this is key to those with hearing loss or those who are listening to content that is not in their native language.
On the one hand, everybody can learn to listen with their eyes, by using their intuition or creating a greater sense of awareness. On the other, Cairney emphasized, this is not a natural state when in conversation—it’s one that is learned over time.
“In my experience, we are hardwired to listen to respond. We’re already planning what we’re going to say back,” the leadership coach said. “It’s also interesting that in leadership job roles, we often see ‘good communicator,’ but not ‘good listener.’”
Listening as a Leader and Through Change
As the Associate Director of Principal Gifts, Peter Barron is in a leadership role—a member of what he called a new generation of leadership at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Barron enrolled in the CASE Academy to reframe his ideas about leadership (and within that, listening) and learn best practices. He was particularly intrigued by the Academy’s module on emotional intelligence, particularly looking at the difference between being a “learner” and being a “judger” in a listening situation.
“We default to judgment often. I will admit that I do it. I have an opinion, and I jump to that for good or bad,” he said. “How can I rewire that? You have to be consciously attuned to do it. Can I understand your perspective to then grow with you?”
Mekhi Johnson, Senior Director of Stewardship Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S., is another CASE Academy enrollee. He discussed how challenging it can be for managers to feel like they have to have all of the answers simply because they’re in leadership roles. It’s OK, he pointed out, for leaders to say what they know and what they don’t know. Johnson said he’s tried to become accustomed to that while maintaining the environment of honesty and transparency begun by his predecessor.
“The responsibility is on me to show up and have a presence and to mean what I say … follow through and follow up,” he said, discussing how to create a culture where people feel comfortable sharing.
That supportive culture is more crucial than ever as advancement teams navigate the ongoing shifts of the pandemic, the Great Resignation, hybrid and remote work, and more. Listening with empathy is especially key, Johnson said; advancement leaders and staff have to focus differently during virtual meetings or Zoom conversations.
“Online and in person, I enjoy the one-on-one time with my staff, in which they can share not just concerns but successes,” he said. “But it’s challenging in terms of morale. Some of them don’t want to be in the office. How can we find common ground and move forward?”
It is imperative for leaders to listen, Johnson said, and help foster a spirit of change at institutions while finding ways for their teams to be invested in larger goals. Within conversations about cultural intelligence and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Smith recognizes the notion of servant leadership: doing your best to serve your team, colleagues, institution, and greater community.
“Listening is definitely an element of that,” he said. “Listening builds self-esteem. You think, ‘How seldom in my life has someone actually listened to me?’ You think about the value of that and your sense of well-being. Being understood: it’s so important.”
How Leaders Can Improve
So how do advancement leaders bridge the gap between “no one listens to me”—as many staff feel—and “we want to hear from you”—which is so often part of institutional messaging? Ciporen suggested that leaders might start with asking more questions.
Leaders demonstrate that they are listening when they’re following up with questions and actively engaged. Cairney said that another way to prove that one is actively listening is to “play it back” to the other person in the conversation.
“I play it back to people: ‘What I hear you saying is …,’” she offered as an example. “Leaders think they need to have an immediate response. It’s better to seek clarity and demonstrate that you’ve heard what they’ve said.”
Cairney shared a favorite tactic: Before a session, she takes 10 minutes to identify distractions, deadlines, or stresses. Then she makes sure she’s dealt with these things for the moment, so they don’t impact the quality of her time with a client.
Echoing Cairney’s tip, Ciporen and Langiulli bring the notion of good listening back to self-awareness, in which leaders can actively remove distractions and suppress the urge to constantly respond. Here’s one simple way to maintain listening focus, suggests Langiulli: Put away the smartphone. The moment it dings, flashes, or buzzes, the device instantly halts deeper listening.
Given advancement professionals’ well-developed external listening practices, they can be a model for better internal listening at educational institutions.
“Fundraising leaders and their teams have the power to transform higher education if they are willing to share and establish these habits with their colleagues. This could revolutionize the sector,” declared Langiulli.
The Impact on Leadership
Consciously focusing on listening can solve key challenges, agreed the experts quoted in this article. For decades, Smith has been seeking to persuade her development colleagues about the importance of listening to donors. She also tries to impart these lessons more broadly inside UC San Diego.
“When you’re an expert in a field, you’re more used to talking than you are to listening,” Smith said, referencing her academic colleagues. “They assume it’s all on their shoulders—to talk up the program, highlight their work, close the deal. But my strategy is to remind people of the importance of listening.”
At the University of Melbourne, Barron said, as a new leader he wants to be part of an institution that listens better as a whole. That means using better listening practices when it comes to internal and external audiences.
“Is the institution listening to the society around it? It’s a question we should always ask,” he said. “We should always be challenging ourselves to listen beyond our assumptions and really hear the challenge from someone else’s perspective.”
Johnson echoed the sustained commitment that good leadership and focused listening requires of those in positions of power.
“You have to be self-aware. Know those weaknesses in yourself, and challenge yourself,” he said. “I can’t ask [my staff] to be honest if I’m not honest. I can’t ask them to be transparent if I’m not transparent. I want to be a great model for them, but I also genuinely want to listen and learn from them.”