Reflection 9: Listen First to Understand – then Respond

Effective and cle25th Anniversary Butterflyar communication is a skill that all evaluators must master but sometimes those of us in the evaluation field forget that we may be speaking a foreign language to our clients. We become comfortable with acronyms like IRB or throw around names for data collection methods like surveys, focus groups, naturalistic observations, and ethnography to name a few—not realizing that those words can have different meanings to different people. Precision of language is vitally important, and it goes hand-in-hand with another skill that, over time, I have come to respect—that of active listening. As evaluators, we need to listen to ourselves, visitors, our colleagues, and our clients. To me, active listening is listening first to understand and then responding, and I have found it difficult to do especially when I feel that I have something important to say. We’ve all been there I think; those moments when you start to tune out someone because you are searching for the right opening to say what’s been on your mind for the last several minutes. It’s fairly easy to spot when someone is not actively listening because their comments result in non sequiturs.

One of the challenges with active listening is that it is mentally exhausting. It’s much easier to let your brain relax at regular intelistening2rvals rather than to be constantly aware of what every other person is saying. When conducting in-depth interviews, asking visitors open-ended questions about an exhibition or program, which are intended to result in visitor-centered conversations, we are “on” the entire time and do very little talking ourselves. We are very careful to train our interviewers to actively listen to visitors’ responses so they can discern whether visitors are responding to the questions or whether their responses require additional questions; simultaneously they also have to make sure they understand what the visitor means by the words he or she uses—which is the essence of understanding. At the end of a day of interviewing, I warn my data collectors that they will feel mentally exhausted, because I have experienced this kind of fatigue so many times before. This one example points to a key tenet of active listening—you, as the listener, really do not say much at all; rather your primary job is to listen to understand and ask questions to seek clarity if you don’t understand.

With our clients, active listening is important, too. It’s one of the many things I’ve learned to do while working at RK&A. I learned to actively listen first when I was an interviewer (which I still like to do when the project calls for it because it is a great reminder of the importance of active listening). Then, I learned the key role active listening plays in client meetings and intentional planning workshops we facilitate. Most of what we do as evaluators is ask questions, listen, and then ask more questions to seek further clarity. The mental exhaustion I feel at the end of the day is a good sign that I have done my job as an active listener. I’d be concerned if that feeling were to ever disappear.

3 Responses
  1. Great post Emily!… I wonder if you find common prompts or questions that work well as probes when trying to dig deeper to understand what visitors mean by the words he or she chooses?.. Any go to sources or references that you think are helpful? (especially thinking about those just starting out in the field and maybe attempting interviews for the very first time)

  2. Great question. Some of my favorite probes are simple and conversational, such as “Can you tell me more?” or “What might be an example of that idea?” I also love asking “Why is that?” or “What makes you say that?” Simple but effective since the “why” is really the most important part of asking the question in the first place. I tend to use “Anything else?” as a transition to the next question because it serves a dual purpose. It gives interviewees the opportunity to elaborate but it is also an effective “out” if they do not feel that further elaboration is required.

    Stand by for go-to resources. I’d like to post a collection of my colleagues’ favorite ones.

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