Impact is a Story – Here’s How to Listen For It
By Miriam Brosseau
With the recent turn of many organizations’ fiscal years, and the upcoming Jewish holidays (always sooner than we think), our collective organizational minds begin to orient to what’s to come. We get (yet) another chance at renewal, and an opportunity to better understand our potential to make change in the world. What is the impact we hope to achieve in the coming year?
Our first order of business, then, is to better understand what that impact is in the first place.
The impact of an organization, I would argue, is best found in the stories of those it serves. Not only your beneficiaries, but anyone whose life is touched by your work. Each has a unique lens on your mission, and is uniquely transformed by their encounter with it.
To understand our own impact, especially in community-driven organizations in which the outcomes sometimes feel nebulous or too long-term to pin down, we must listen – often and well.
So, let’s take a step back and listen like we mean it. Here are a few ways to do that:
Ask a bigger question: place curiosity before empathy. Much has been made of the importance of empathy in all aspects of life, certainly not just the organizational world. In marketing, we are trained to know the target audience – demographically, psychographically, their habits and desires… And that’s great and important and true. But it does nothing if that analysis of your audience is based on pre-existing assumptions or biases and not on genuine understanding. (I’ve had to learn this myself, over and over, with varying degrees of success.) “Empathy” can quickly devolve into a tool for acting out confirmation bias and stereotyping. And then what purpose does it serve?
Our job is to get genuinely curious about the lives, interests, passions, and concerns of the people we hope to serve.
This curiosity serves us well in face-to-face interactions, but can also be done online. I particularly admire how Rabbi Arnie Samlan still uses his digital presence every week to ask a question of his network (he wrote about beginning this ritual way back in 2011 on the Darim Online blog). It began, quite simply, as “It’s Friday. What have we learned this week?” It has since evolved – as all good rituals do – to more nuanced questions and richer discussions. The question is posed with genuine curiosity and a desire not only to learn, but to connect. The space in the comments, whether on Twitter or Facebook or wherever his network encounters the question, becomes a digital watercooler for gathering and conversation. The simple brilliance of this approach is in its authenticity and continuity.
What does your organization’s mission mean to the people involved? What’s changed for them since they first got engaged? The first task is to assume, humbly, that we just don’t know what we don’t know, and then learn. From there we can begin to see the patterns as they coalesce, the ripples of impact that our work inspires and facilitates.
Block time – and technology – to be fully present. Listening is not a way to pass the time while formulating a reply. If we want to listen to hear, and not just to respond, we have to mark out the space and time to make that possible. Ditch the phone. Close the laptop. Book time for conversations where you can linger a bit and not worry whether your time is spilling over into the next meeting.
Filmmaker and a digital renaissance woman Tiffany Schlain coined the term “Tech Shabbat” to describe her family’s practice of going device-free for 24 hours every week; she now has a book out about it. The more integrated our devices become into our everyday lives, the more we see the value of the true connection that comes with putting them down. The more technology begins to approach its potential, the more we see our own emerge through intentional disengagement.
Social media is not a megaphone. But it can help you listen. The digital revolution may have been about talking. The digital revelation is about listening. When you do use digital tools and tech, think of them as much as a tool for listening as for talking (or, rather, shouting, as is all too often the case). What are your audience’s interests, or concerns? What are they sharing? What themes are they tackling, what questions are they asking, and what’s sparking their imaginations?
So when you do use social media, ask yourself: in what ways might these tools help us understand the needs and aspirations of the people we hope to serve? How can we translate that understanding into IRL connection in service of something bigger?
Let them know they’ve been heard. The rise of digital and social media has been spurred in no small part because of humanity’s innate need for validation: we are desperate to be seen and heard. (Whether social media has fulfilled that promise is another discussion entirely.) In our communities, in our work, we need to demonstrate that and deliver.
This concept is at the heart of what Allison Fine refers to as Matterness in her book of the same title. Fine summarized the concept of Matterness beautifully in this 2014 interview in Philanthropy News Digest:
“I don’t think of “Matterness” as a tech idea, I think of it as a fundamentally human notion: every person deserves to matter, but we need organizations to sustain any kind of change effort. Rather than embrace that idea, however, organizations continue to work hard to distance themselves from their own constituents in order to sustain the illusion of control. In a disaggregated world, a world that has gone from three TV channels to thousands on cable and online, only organizations that treat their constituents like real people with their own unique talents are going to survive.”
As you listen, acknowledge. If you’re meeting in person, “listen like a trampoline” as this article in the Harvard Business Review recommends. Thank. Show appreciation. When people feel they’ve been heard, they feel they matter.
Listening, as the StoryCorps collection reminds us, is an act of love. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts that “Judaism is a religion of listening.” Listening is also key to building trust. It is a holy act, and one that too often gets pushed aside in the hustle and tactics of the every day. This is to our collective detriment. But, with the suggestions above (and many, many others that I’m sure you already use and which I hope you will share), we can shift and more fully integrate listening for impact into our practice.
It is not our job to stand on a chair and shout at those we seek to serve. It is up to us to lean into their words and lift up their voices. And that is where we will find the essence of our own impact.
Miriam Brosseau is the Principal of Tiny Windows Consulting.