Listening as a Principle for Authentic Community Engagement

Lead with Listening

Listening is a neglected skill, especially in change efforts.  Often the leaders’ emphasis is on communicating a decision to stakeholders. When listening campaigns are conducted, they often appear to be just for show – the decision (say, to close a school) is already made, or the community’s voice is given a platform, but not really listened to by the institutional leaders.

Listening deeply is one of the most effective ways to inspire individual and collective action. Successful community engagement efforts make listening strategies central. When listening is practiced in authentic ways, the listening campaign becomes more authentic, and community voice is not just heard, but empowered to influence or make change.

Constructivist Listening is a form of dialogue that explicitly recognizes and honors people’s emotions. It allows people to explore their feelings and thoughts in order to better ‘construct’ their understanding of issues that are important to them. Dialogue that serves that purpose well is uncommon in professional or community settings so explicit structures have been developed in which constructivist listening can take place (dyads, support groups, personal experience panels).

This applied communication practice has benefits for both the listener and the speaker. The listener develops capacities for deep listening, presence and authentic connection while listening to others’ thinking and experiences. The speaker develops capacities for focused reflection, critical thinking and reasoning, and creative, thoughtful action as they construct personal meaning out of information, concepts and lived experience.

The National Equity Project frequently uses constructivist listening with clients to foster reflective habits, build community, and deepen learning. We have found it to be particularly needed in urban school settings because of the high levels of distress and need for emotional release. If such distress goes unaddressed, it can cause or reinforce unproductive or uncaring behaviors.

Constructivist listening enables people to think more clearly and more empathetically. Guidelines include:

1. Everyone deserves attention. Each person is given time to talk.

2. The listener does not interpret, paraphrase, analyze, give advice, or break in with a personal story. People are capable of solving their own problems.

3. The talker is not to criticize or complain about the listener or about mutual colleagues.

4. Confidentiality is maintained. Topics are not brought up later even between speakers.

Constructivist listening is a core topic in our Leading for Equity curriculum.   For more information visit http://nationalequityproject.org/attend/leading-for-equity-institute-2012.

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