Nearly every morning when I’m at home, I take my 55-pound rescue dog, Birdie, for a 45+ minute walk. We typically cover two to three miles.
I don’t wear headphones, and I don’t listen to anything. It’s just time for us to walk together, with her on and off the leash searching for squirrels and bunnies, and me just walking.
Near the end of a recent walk, in a patch of woods near our local library, I took a moment to stop and listen.
I realized that the sound of crickets was as loud as it might be in the middle of the night. A few birds chirped. I could hear the hum of the occasional car driving my in the busy street nearby.
My experience of stopping, and noticing, was remarkable. It felt like someone had flipped a switch and turned on all of these sounds that had, of course, been there all along. They had been drowned out, this day and every day, by the endless chatter in my head.
The fact is that we regularly, habitually, separate ourselves from quiet and from being present.
We scan social media and our email. We reflexively pop in headphones whenever we walk anywhere. And, even when we have a chance to experience quiet, we let our heads be filled with an endless cycle of repetitive thoughts.
It can feel difficult to break this pattern, but intentionally listening is actually an easy door to walk through.
Listening gives us something specific to pay attention to, and that something is full of beauty and is ever-changing.
Why not try it, right now?
Wherever and whenever you’re reading this, try this: take 30 seconds, right now to listen. Give yourself this moment.
[PAUSE, STOP READING, CLOSE YOUR EYES, AND LISTEN FOR 30 SECONDS]
Maybe you heard silence, maybe you heard the whir of air conditioning, maybe you heard the bustle around you, maybe you even heard a bird chirping.
This level of connection to the present is available to us every second of every day.
We’ve all heard this message, when we’ve called our healthcare provider, or our bank, or what used to be the cable company.
“Push 2 if you’d like to continue in Spanish,” is what it says.
In the last two weeks, struggling with the byzantine American healthcare system, I’ve had recorded voices at the start of the customer care maze say this sentence….with the most outrageously, embarrassingly American accent you could possibly imagine. It’s a caricature of bad Spanish.
Only two things could be happening here, one worse than the other:
The company doesn’t know that the Spanish being spoken is abysmal
The company knows that it is abysmal, but doesn’t care enough to fix it
Think about this: if you press the number ‘2’, presumably the company will have native Spanish speakers for you to speak to. Which means they don’t have an access-to-native-Spanish-speakers problem, they have a caring about the customer problem, or a bureaucracy problem, or a “I just do what the boss tells me” problem.
Both ignorance and not caring are a terrible place to end up, but we don’t get there all at once.
We get there because those in charge enable a culture tolerates disengagement, and because those not in charge decide it’s easier to follow the rules or to hide than it is to take things personally and to take pride in all of our work.
Teaching caring at scale is a hard thing to do.
It’s also the only thing that separates us from the gravitational pull of mediocrity.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “listening” really means.
The point of entry is the literal act of paying attention to the words another person says. But true listening is hearing what people are really saying, either through their words or, as often, in spite of what they’ve said.
Here are three stories to get into the multiple layers of listening.
One night, my 11-year-old daughter and I were standing in the kitchen. I looked at her and said “could you please open the fridge and get out the parmesan cheese?”
I turned back to chopping vegetables. 30 seconds later she was standing in the spot where she’d been, without any cheese.
When I asked her what was going on, it became clear that she simply hadn’t heard the words I was saying—her mind was somewhere else. She literally did not listen.
That’s OK, she’s only 11.
Dogs and COVID
The next morning, she and I took our dog out for a walk, and we ran into an older man coming out of his car with a dog we’ve never met before. The man seemed a bit hesitant at first, staying on his side of the car, but the dogs’ tails started wagging and I assumed everything was OK.
“She’s very friendly,” I said, referring to my dog.
“Oh it’s fine,” he replied, “and anyway, they don’t transmit COVID.”
My 15-year-old daughter has become a serious runner, and, at the start of the school year, she’d been running 6 or 7 days a week. This included cross country meets on Saturdays followed by 6+ mile runs on Sundays, only to start practice again for the week on Monday.
Three weeks into the season, she got injured. She’s spent the last two months trying to navigate the fine line between recovery and not dropping out of training.
We had multiple conversations about how best to manage the situation, and at various points my wife or I offered to talk to her coach, because we know it can be difficult for a high school kid to speak up for their own needs with adults.
Every time we made that offer, my daughter would resist or shut down.
Until finally, in that moment of silence, my wife said, “We’re not going to tell your Coach we don’t want you to run, and we’re not going to get in the way of you practicing. We just want to share with him what we’re seeing so we can all work together.”
Three levels of listening
The starting point for listening is simply hearing the words people say to us. This is harder than it sounds in our attention-grabbing, device-filled world. It is your version of “that person just asked me to get the Parmesan cheese.”
Beyond that, there’s the basic work of connecting the dots between what people are saying and what might really be on their minds. Outlier, non sequitur comments (“dogs don’t transmit COVID”) are a place to start: “he’s probably not worried about the dogs; he’s worried about himself.” While that particular connection may seem obvious, I’ve watched how literal my kids are in these situations and started to wonder how and when the entry-level skill of “don’t look for meaning just in the words that person said” gets developed. How often do we see the comic book thought bubbles above people’s heads when the speak? I know I was extremely literal for a long time, and that I often defended my non-listening with a version of, “well, if that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say it?” The miss was nearly always mine, not his, in these situations (let alone the extent to which that question is a wonderful expression of white male privilege….)
Finally, we get to the higher-level work: not only tracking both the words being said and the meaning that is unsaid, but finding a way to bring the unsaid into the conversation in a tactful and non-confrontational way. This is the art of shifting a discussion from what is being said to what has intentionally been left aside because it is too difficult to bring up.
This sort of reframing is where real connection and real breakthroughs come from. The experience of someone paying close enough attention that they say out loud the thing we were thinking, the fear that we were nurturing…this act makes a person feel seen in a profound way.
In the end, it is our undivided attention, and the expression of that attention, that are the greatest gifts we can give someone.
For many of us, just hearing the word “feedback” makes us brace for impact—the word alone is the first of two shoes dropping.
What a shame. Feedback is how we learn and grow. It is the distillation of what it feels like to work together, the experiential data that, if delivered skillfully and with care, feeds into our own, and our colleagues’, growth and evolution.
Without feedback, the only thing we all have to go on is our own, hyper-filtered story about what others think of us. That story is missing most of the important details about how we are experienced by others.
Perhaps the issue is that we’re not particularly skilled at giving or receiving feedback since we do it so rarely. To help bridge that gap, here are some tips to get you out of the feedback starting blocks.
Start with SBI. It stands for “Situation” “Behavior” and “Impact” and it is the foundation of all good feedback. This is the practice of phrasing feedback as, “When we were in [situation], you [behavior] and that had [impact] on me.” SBI is foundational because it bounds the feedback to a time, a place, and a specific set of actions and their impact on you. You aren’t giving someone feedback about them as a person, and you are not claiming that your experience with their behavior is universal. You are simply describing your own experience with that behavior in a way that it can safely be discussed. Plus, the SBI phrasing makes the conversation much more actionable because it is so specific.
Keep it positive. “Feedback” is often a dirty word because we only share what’s not working. I remember once being told by a colleague that he wanted to stay on a call with me after a client dropped off, and naturally I got nervous. It turned out his “feedback” was something very positive. If we only give feedback – and only use the word “feedback” – when we have a criticism, it’s no wonder that the word can feel heavy and that hearts start racing when we hear it.
Remember the 5:1 ratio. According to Harvard Business Review, in the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative feedback is a whopping 5.6 to 1. And remember that positive feedback also is best using an SBI structure. Don’t say “Great work on those deliverables,” say “I was so excited when I read that deck you wrote, because the headlines really popped, and they brought the data to life for me.”
Never say “always” or “never.” “Always” and “never” statements are, by definition, about a person and not about her behaviors. They’re both inaccurate (no one does anything “always”) and they are much more likely to be experienced as personal attacks. Don’t use those words.
It’s OK to talk about your own feelings. This is an important detail under the “impact” column of the SBI framework, as long as you won’t get too emotional if you share your feelings. Sharing feelings can help make the experience of impact more real and vivid, and it can help calibrate how big an impact a specific behavior is having. “During the final days of our project, when we were all pushing towards the deadline, you being less responsive than normal to my emails made me feel worried that we weren’t going to hear back from you in time on the final deliverables. I found that being worried made it harder for me to focus at a crucial juncture in the project, and I also had to spend more time managing the team to help fill the information gap and calm their nerves.”
Stay curious. Remember that, if you are the person giving feedback, you are only describing your own experiences. You are not speaking the Ultimate Truth. Find a balance between speaking and listening, so that you can remain open to different interpretations of what happened. Similarly, as the person hearing feedback, try to stay curious. Cultivate genuine interest in what you are hearing, and avoid the mental trap of an internal dialogue refuting every point being made (or, worse, defending yourself at every turn to explain away what you’re hearing). What you are hearing is someone else’s truth. If it is different from your truth, your job is not to be right, it is to understand why you and another person—someone you like and respect—have such different perceptions of the same events.
Reiterate what you’ve heard in your own words. One of the best ways to ensure that the person giving feedback feels validated and heard is to articulate back what you’ve been told. “So, I understand that these three behaviors—behavior 1, 2 and 3—are often having this impact on you and the team. Is that right?”
This is not the time for ‘the kitchen sink.’ If you’re new to giving feedback, or if you give it infrequently, it can be tempting, when you get the courage to share your experience, to share absolutely everything. I call this the “and here’s another thing” trap. The conversation you’re having today is not a one-time occurrence, it is the first in a series of dialogues that should get easier over time. Your goal is twofold: (1) To have a productive conversation about a specific set of behaviors, both positive and negative, that you want to discuss; (2) To have a conversation that is positive enough for both people that you both are more likely to have conversations like this in the future. If you overdo it and share everything that’s ever bugged you about that someone, you’re likely breaking the 5:1 ratio and, worse, you could make it harder to have a similar conversation in the future. That’s not a good outcome for you or for your colleague.
Make a plan. The best feedback conversations result in ‘contracting’ between the people involved about what both will aim to do more and less of in the future. It might take some time for both people to develop this plan, and that’s OK. Come back together to discuss the boiled-down version of what both of you will do in the future, and agree to check in on progress in two months’ time (or whatever interval works for you). This drives accountability and signs you both up for a productive follow-up conversation.
Express receptivity. if you are the person receiving feedback, and especially if you are senior to the person giving feedback, the onus is on you to make this experience positive and productive. Part of your job, in addition to listening intently and with curiosity, is to overcome the natural expectation that more-junior people don’t give constructive feedback to more-senior people. Recognize that the person sitting across from you feels like they are taking a risk, and do everything you can to mitigate that feeling. The way you behave during and after this conversation will either justify this fear or chip away at it.
A useful feedback conversation is a choice by two people to invest in their relationship, to truly listen to each other, and to work together to become better partners. It’s not easy, and while it is going on it can certainly feel hard or unpleasant. But no person and no organizational culture can possibly reach their full potential without giving and receiving effective feedback. Have at it!
So much of how we experience each other bounces off everything that is left unsaid.
Expectations about how good the movie would be.
Expectations about what was meant when you were told “the meeting will start at 10:00.”
Expectations about how we will dress.
Expectations about what it means to do this job.
Expectations about what it means to work for you.
Expectations about who gets to have good ideas.
Expectations about who gets to say yes, and no.
Expectations about who gets to speak when.
Expectations about how, and how much, to agree and disagree.
Expectations about where we do our best work.
Expectations about whether showing up in person matters.
Expectations about how much care we put into saying “thank you.”
Expectations about what it means to listen, and the relative importance of listening and speaking.
Expectations about how a President is supposed to act.
Expectations about who can and cannot leave the office first.
Expectations about what silence means (in a meeting, when I don’t hear back from you).
Expectations about what you mean when you say “I’ll take it from here.”
It turns out that most of how we experience in the world comes from sense-making, and sense-making is a comparison between what happened and the sum total of everyone’s unspoken expectations.
Think for a moment about what this means if you’re working across…anything really: geography, culture, class, religion, age, gender, or even just two groups within the same organization.
More often than not, misunderstandings come from forgetting how different each of our expectations are, and from the mental shortcuts we all take as we fill in blanks (“what did that really mean?”) based all of our unconscious biases.
Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.
Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.
Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.
Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?
Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”
My last post was about what it takes to deliver a message that has emotional content, whether an apology or an expression of gratitude or a sincere request for help.
The flip side of that post is to ask: what can I do to make it easier for people to show up in an authentic way and speak their truth?
Highly effective teams are those in which the emotional hurdles have been lowered. While it’s not up to the authority figure alone to lower these hurdles, the work often starts with her.
In thinking about how you show up with your team, notice how what you say in the first few minutes of a meeting plays a huge role in determining what is and is not discussed. Be aware of when it’s time to talk less. Notice what happens when you ask more open-ended questions. Make sure that you let silence be your friend, and that you allow challenging or uncomfortable moments to persist, instead of jumping in to resolve them. And always keep an eye on the data you’re getting back from participation: Google’s research finds that the most effective teams have equal participation from all members.
This all might make intuitive sense, but we can often be unaware of our own biases. I’ve always been pretty comfortable speaking up, and I’ve always taken it as a point of pride that I deeply believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. But it took me a while to see my own blind spots: I spent far too little time thinking about how different people respond to roles, hierarchy and authority; I rarely gave much thought to noticing who was more introverted or extroverted and adapting accordingly; I paid too little attention to the active work I could do to build others’ confidence; and I expected that that most people experienced “healthy debate” as, well, healthy.
Mostly, what I was exhibiting was a lack of empathy: respecting other people is one thing, but empathy means that I actually see things from their perspective, rather than generalize from my own. If I’m honest, I often used to find myself thinking, quietly, “well, if he thought that why didn’t he just speak up?” until I finally figured out that every time I thought that I needed to then ask, “and what more could I have done to help make that happen?”
On Monday, Tony Loyd was nice enough to include me in his great series of Social Entrepreneur podcasts. We covered a lot of topics but dug in most deeply on Lean Data, particularly on how we are using it at Acumen to amplify the voice of low-income customers so our entrepreneurs can better serve them. It was a fun conversation.
(if you’re not seeing the embedded link click here)
If this kind of thing is up your alley, you might want to sign up to receive the specialized newsletter we’ve created to share hot-off-the-press insights on what we’re learning through Lean Data. We send it out once every six weeks or so, so it won’t clog your inbox, and it’s full of great stuff.
What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?
It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:
The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.
The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.
The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.
Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?” I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.
Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.
Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.
Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.
Every day, more than 5 million new cellphones are sold. That’s more than 10 times the number of babies born each day. We are barreling towards a world where a cellphone will be in every pocket by 2020, and a smartphone in every pocket soon after that.
This revolution is making the unimaginable real— in the near future, we will have the opportunity to start a dialogue with literally every person on the planet. This new two-way conversation, where everyone participates, will pull billions of people into the mainstream by connecting them with one another.
Since starting this work in 2014, one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that a cellphone in every pocket is just a starting point. The art of every Lean Data project is in the questions we ask. Ask the wrong questions, and you get back little of value. Ask the right ones, and you can move from data to information to actionable insights.
Great questions connect with customers and give them an opportunity to share their voice. But crafting a great question is no easy task. The slightest shifts in word choice can affect understanding; the smallest differences in intonation alter perceptions of sincerity. All of these nuances can bias the data and diminish its value.
For example, in trying to understand the usage of solar home systems in Kenya, we started with the question, “How often are you currently using (product/service)?” After testing this question over SMS, we received feedback suggesting we omit the word “often” and make the question more simple and direct. We quickly amended the question to “When do you use (product/service)?,” provided sample multiple choice replies, and received a higher level of understanding.
Getting questions right is not a new idea. Indeed, Angus Deaton’s recent Nobel Prize was largely the result of his foundational work on designing household surveys. What’s new is trying to gather rich data over a cellphone. While you can run an effective focus group with a loose guide of topics and you can cover a lot of ground in a 90-minute one-on-one interview, a typical SMS survey is limited to 10 questions and 150 characters per question. These constraints are a powerful pressure-cooker for the questions we ask. We’ve got to make every word and every question count.
So what makes a great question?
For us, a great question is one that is easily and consistently understood by customers. It’s one that makes the complex simple. And it’s one that yields insight around what matters to the customer and the social enterprise trying to serve them.
One of the biggest challenges in impact measurement and international development is understanding not just the breadth but the depth of impact. In Acumen’s case, depth is defined by the degree of change in their well-being a customer experiences from one of our investments’ products or services. For example, we know that a solar light is a better solution than a kerosene lamp, but exactly how much better and why is tricky to figure out. This isn’t an academic exercise for Acumen or our companies. Ultimately, we need to understand our customers’ needs to know where to direct our capital to drive the greatest impact, and without impact data we are simply flying blind.
Because we work across multiple sectors addressing a number of the problems of poverty, our challenge extends beyond just figuring out the quantitative impact of owning a solar light or sending a child to a low-cost private school. Our goal is to go one step further and understand the qualitative difference in value that our customers experience when comparing the various products and services available to them.
Can we really compare the impact of a year of schooling to owning a solar home system? We’re not sure, but we think it’s worth a shot. We believe that trying to understand these comparisons from a customer’s perspective will push us to listen harder and deeper, and it will test the limits of our ability to get rich data through mobile phones.
We asked ourselves if we could create a question or a set of questions that get at this topic directly, helping our customers share what they value most and why.
While a single question to cut through the complexity of our work seemed far-fetched, we knew that similar attempts have been made before. Twelve years ago, Frederick F. Reichheld, Rob Markey and Bain & Company developed the Net Promoter Score® (NPS). According to the Harvard Business Review, the NPS “substitut[ed] a single question for the complex black box of the typical customer satisfaction survey.” Today, it’s become widely adopted by the Fortune 500 as one of the most effective ways to measure customer loyalty. Just as NPS provides companies with a method to effectively judge performance and generate qualitative customer feedback, we wanted to create a single, unifying question to compare social impact.
We started by asking ourselves whether the NPS question — “How likely is it that you would recommend [product/service] to a friend or colleague?” [1–10 scale]” — could serve as a good proxy for how much impact a product had for our customers. We wanted to test this by asking NPS questions together with our depth of impact questions to see if products with a higher NPS also had a higher depth of impact.
We piloted this approach in Kenya and India in two surveys, and the initial results were not as promising as we had hoped.
Despite the proven success of NPS with more affluent, educated customers, the question didn’t seem to perform well with our customers who are typically poor, have limited formal education and little experience with surveys. In follow-up conversations, we heard that the 0–10 scale was hard for them to understand and the hypothetical “would recommend” language didn’t translate well.
Lean Data surveys are short and inexpensive to conduct, so it’s easy to test and refine questions. We experimented with four different versions of the question before landing on a question, inspired by NPS, that seems to perform well: “Have you ever recommended product/service to a friend?” We also played with three different answer scales and arrived at a workable solution. Instead of a 0–10 scale, customers choose between three responses: “Yes, I’ve told many friends;” “Yes I’ve told some friends;” or “No, I have not.”
Once we saw the effectiveness of this question, we wanted to go further, to learn not only whether or not customers recommended a product but also the drivers of meaningfulness of that impact. Drawing on the concept of Constituent Voice developed by Keystone Accountability, we developed a second question, asking customers to respond from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” to the statement: “There have been changes in my home because of (product/service).”
In the early tests we’ve run, we’ve seen correlation between reported depth of impact and the strength of agreement to this “meaningfulness” question. For example, owners of solar lights who “strongly agree” with the statement reported an 83 percent reduction in expenditure kerosene, while the customers who said “agree” only reported a 69 percent savings on kerosene. These are just preliminary results, but we’re starting to see that this question might allow us to compare across different interventions, so that customers can tell us what they value the most and why.
While we’re still fine-tuning both of these questions, the progress we’ve made is exciting. Low-income customers are enthusiastic to engage in dialogue, and we are seeing that it’s possible — if you work at it — to develop new questions that capture rich, meaningful data about the wants and preferences of this emerging set of customers. At the end of one of our surveys, one happy customer expressed her satisfaction with the service she received at a health clinic and then added, “I really enjoyed being interviewed.” Clearly, we’re on to something.
While Lean Data is, today, being used mostly by startup social enterprises, our work in learning to ask the right questions over mobile phones is universal. The low-income customer of today is the low middle-income customer of tomorrow. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are poised to improve their well-being, but this depends on how well we, as a society, listen to them and adjust our efforts to meet their needs.
So much of this rests on the simple act of caring enough to ask the right questions.