Program Perspectives: True Listening

By Margaret Kadoyama

What does it mean to truly listen? And how does the answer to that question relate to our lives as museum professionals?

The theme of Western Museums Association 2015 Annual Meeting is Listen • Learn • Lead. It’s no coincidence that the first word in the theme is listen. Truly listening is at the core of our work with our internal and external communities. But what does this mean? How do we know when we are truly listening, and how do we develop and practice this skill?

Considering these questions led me to the work of specialists in this area, and I found interesting posts by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. about Engaged Listening, from Transforming Communities about Eloquent Listening, and from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche about True Listening.

These specialists focus on respecting and valuing others—important aspects of all our relationships.

When we truly listen, we:

  • Attend: We focus on what the person is saying, not on what we will say in response. We turn our phones to silent, and put them away. We don’t pick them up, even to check our messages, until our conversation is finished.
  • Acknowledge our own assumptions. Assumptions create a filter, making it more difficult to hear the intentions of the speaker.
  • Value and enjoy a diversity of perspectives
  • Have a genuine desire to learn about someone
  • Seek to understand the content and the feeling of the message
  • Are patient—we let the speaker develop their ideas. Even if we think we know where the speaker is going, true listening means that we are not in the driver’s seat—the speaker is.
  • Empathize
  • Assume the other person has valuable things to offer
  • Ask clarifying questions—“Tell me more.” When we ask someone to tell us more, it lets the person know that we are paying attention and want to understand more fully.
  • Ask the person we’re with, “What questions do you want to be asked?” This provides a welcoming, open-hearted invitation for the person to say what’s important to them, and to let them know that we truly want to know.

Remember when someone did these things with you, how good it felt that they were really paying attention? You knew they were engaged with what you were trying to communicate, and it was a great feeling. You felt valued. That sense of value is what we strive to bring to our relationships at work and at home. As museum professionals, true listening is a skill that facilitates relationships internally—with your staff, board, and volunteers—and externally, with your communities. When you truly listen, you let the person you’re with know that you value their perspective and your time together, and that what they say matters to you.

True listening takes planning, even more so now, since so many people are tied to their personal devices. It is easy to think that the messages that come in on your phone are urgent, but true listening requires you to place priority on the person you are with.

It also means preparing the way to be fully engaged in a conversation. Realize that distractions abound, for you and your conversation partner. Set the scene for effective communication by asking, “Is now a good time to talk?” This signals the other person that you would like to engage in a meaningful conversation, one where both of you are focused and paying attention.

True listening takes practice. When you do it whole-heartedly, you will see your relationships deepen and grow over the long term. And that is at the core of museums creating strong connections with their communities.

To learn more about listening and other key skills for connecting with your communities, come to the WMA 2015 session Turning Outward: Museums and Libraries as Sites for Community Innovation and Revitalization on Sunday, October 25, 2015. Chris Siefert from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Leilani Lewis from the Northwest African American Museum, and Gerry Garzón from the Oakland Public Library will share their stories and lessons learned, and we will all have a chance to truly listen.

Margaret Kadoyama is principal of Margaret Kadoyama Consulting, specializing in action plans for involving and engaging communities, program development and assessment, and audience development plans. She is a member of The Museum Group, and she teaches Museums and Communities in the graduate department of museum studies at John F. Kennedy University. Her work results in organizations that are more accessible, inclusive, and relevant to their communities.



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