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You want to change society? Here is why listening needs to be at the core of your work!

Over the last 4 years I have worked with change makers in Africa, Europe and South/ South East Asia.

I find that one of the most valuable insights I am able to pass on through my capacity-building work is the importance of listening to create effective change strategies.

It helps you to:

  • create an inspiring vision,

  • get a real grasp of the change you want to create

  • discover how you might do this

  • frame your work in a way that it resonates with your target audience.

How? Lean back and enjoy.

Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT has published extensively about the fact that despite all of us working hard to improve the world, we keep on producing outcomes that don’t serve the well being of all. This is because we work and think in silos and - as form follows consciousness – create structures that serve our silo thinking, producing outcomes that only serve our silo structures.

As Albert Einstein once said:

“We cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them.”

Dare to open yourself up to new perspectives

If we want to transform a system, we need to fully understand what shapes it but we also need to understand how this system interlinks with other highly interdependent systems.

Scharmer’s first suggestion is to ensure that you open up your silos and analyse the system you want to change, together with people from other “eco-systems” who bring in different views and perspectives.

I have seen this working well within many different groups who would normally think and plan only inside their own, closed team. On my suggestion, they invited into the discussion experts, creative thinkers, champions from industries, beneficiaries etc.

Many people were worried at first about giving up control: “What if they move us in a different direction? What if they don’t agree with us? Can we trust them?”

The key here is to listen to each other with an open heart and an open mind.

Every time we did this exercise, people found that:

a) bringing in different viewpoints sharpens your strategy

b) your system and problem analysis become much more thorough

c) you identify leverage points you might never have thought of before.

Feel what the future could look like

Once you have a good understanding of what is wrong with the part of the world you want to change, it is useful to go to the places of the “highest potential”.

These are the places where some change is already happening and you get to see a glimpse of what the future could look like.

Last week – as part of a Renewable Energy Advocacy Leadership Training I facilitated – 26 young change makers from 3 countries visited 7 different, rural communities in Tanzania that had access to various renewable energy solutions for power, irrigation, cooking etc.

We asked them to speak to and actively listen to different women, men, young and old people in these communities about the benefits and challenges they had been experiencing with these technologies and find out what their own hopes, dreams, worries and concerns were.

Scharmer differentiates between 4 different levels of listening.

  • Level 1 is called downloading. It is when you listen but already think about what you will say and just wait for the other person to catch their breath to jump in. Sounds familiar?

  • Level 2 is the listening when you just listen out for new facts.

  • In level 3 you listen with empathy and you feel the emotions the other person is conveying.

  • Level 4 is the type of listening where you yourself get transformed. Something inside you moves and you see the world with different eyes. This is generative listening.

I saw this level 4 happen among many of the trainees visiting the communities. After the visit they were no longer talking about technical solutions. They were talking about people and what kind of futures they wanted to bring to their own communities and countries.

It was deeply inspiring.

Once you have a clear vision, a good understanding of the problem and identified leverage points, you need to think about your target audience.

Listen deeply to the people you want to get on board

Especially when you run public facing campaigns and advocacy efforts, it is also really important to go out and listen to the people you want to engage in your campaign. What do they think and feel about the issue you are trying to solve? What are they already doing against it? What is important to them?

In Nigeria a group I worked with wanted to calm traffic in a specific neighbourhood of a big city. They wanted to engage parents to advocate with them as they assumed that parents were very worried about the high number of road accidents involving children.

When we went out to talk to the parents in the community we found out though that they regarded the risk of accidents as “part of life”. They – especially the ones owning market stalls along the road - were much more worried about the air pollution from the traffic and the impact on their and their family’s health.

So rather than framing the campaign around school children’s safety, it got framed around health.

The same happened with the first iteration of a campaign against an airport expansion. Listening to the target audience of Young Urban Eco Conscious Professionals made the group realise that this group loved to see places and often traveled by plane as the cheapest option. They soon understood that a campaign making people feel guilty about flying would not work. Instead the group jumped on the fact that the target audience loved travelling but would have used trains if cheap options were available. So the campaign got centered around “more affordable international trains, so that airport expansion is not needed”.

Generative listening helped to focus and frame the campaigns around the needs and thinking of the target audience.

This is part of an effective Human Centred Design Approach.

Want to include participatory methodologies that provide space for generative listening in your next strategy development process?

Get in touch and let’s together create a solution that will fit your need.

I promise I will listen!

P.s. If you like this post, then I’d really love it if you can share it on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

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