By Graham Bodie, Ph.D.
Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications
Several news outlets across the state have reported on the “listening sessions” convened by The Board of Trustees. The Board should be applauded for holding these sessions, for seeking input from various stakeholders who would otherwise be largely voiceless in the process. In a decision as important as this, public participation and engagement are essential. But public participation and engagement are not the same thing as listening.
Listening is dialogical, not monological. Listening involves responsive attention and understanding. It is not merely a way to “get to the facts.” To be sure, letting someone articulate their position is imperative to the listening process. Allowing space for someone to speak demonstrates a willingness to listen, a necessary first step. The way the Board structured its listening session, however, has made the assurance of understanding different perspectives difficult if not impossible. As a result, these sessions are more aptly labeled “hearing sessions.”
Listening is not the same thing as hearing, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Whereas hearing starts and ends with information being received, to listen requires further action. Hearing is about comprehension, listening about understanding. Hearing opens a space for content to be distributed. Listening opens relationships between people and potentially divergent ideas. Listening is much more complex and nuanced than these sessions portrayed.
What we lack in the case of these sessions is not opportunities for people to express their views, but the means by which particular voices are valued within the process of hiring the new chancellor. People certainly spoke during these sessions. Indeed, many shared heartfelt opinions about the current state of the University and its direction. And the Board seemed to hear those who felt empowered enough to express what was on their hearts. There was note-taking, some head nodding, and facial expressions of concern, surprise, and recognition among Board members. These behaviors signal that input had been received. But they do not demonstrate the Board was listening.
When asked what it means for someone to listen, people are much more likely to use terms like attention, responsiveness, understanding, acknowledgment, openness, and responding than they are to use terms like input, consultation, participation, or giving voice. What this means is that our expectation for a listening session includes, at minimum, feedback that our concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered. In an ideal session, such feedback is immediate. There was ample time for Board members to give such feedback immediately as the long periods of silence between participant comments showed. In one instance, a member of the faculty who asked the Board for their definition of academic freedom was told “we are here to listen not to speak.” This understanding of what it means to listen is not only wrong, it is counterproductive to the purpose these sessions were meant to serve.
A true listening session is more than a series of monologues spoken into a microphone. The most productive listening sessions are more like guided conversations. They not only allow people the opportunity to be heard, they demonstrate that what is heard matters. Presently, we are left to speculate about the concerns the Board will take seriously and which they will ignore. We are left puzzled as to their process for identifying and considering the multiple, and often conflicting, desires and aspirations for the new chancellor. To what voices will they attend, and what voices will simply be speaking into the air?
The Board could learn a lot from studying listening and considering the models of public participation and stakeholder engagement most useful as they choose a new chancellor. Until then, let them hear to the best of their abilities.
Graham Bodie is a listening scholar, educator, and consultant. As a professor, he teaches students the value of listening to stakeholder voices in order to align corporate mission with what people value. As Chief Listening Officer for Listen First Project, he advocates for the role of listening to help depolarize American culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.