Foundations: Are You Truly Listening or Just Hearing?



Henry Berman is the CEO of Exponent Philanthropy

We live in a non-stop world of communications where we are constantly bombarded with messages. It can be difficult to sort through it all, to understand, to listen. Yet, I wonder if the challenge is in listening or hearing?

Listening or hearing? What does each mean? Can you do one without the other? And does it really matter?

Many of us use these words interchangeably, although, I suggest hearing is a physical act involving capturing sound waves and vibrations. Listening, on the other hand, is how you understand what you hear, taking the sounds, paying attention, interpreting them, and placing value on them as you put them into context.

Is it possible to hear but not listen? Of course. We’ve all been guilty.

Decades ago the late Erma Bombeck observed, “It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of super sophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.”

Her words remain true today. We need more listeners!

Recently, I had the opportunity to do exactly that – listen! The Patterson Foundation graciously hosted me for a breakfast with a small group of Sarasota-area Exponent Philanthropy members. It was an opportunity to gather, meet, and, most important from my perspective, listen.

There is power in listening, and I don’t mean power in a controlling sense. Rather, the power comes from information gained, perspective introduced, and the respect offered to the other party. Good listening is at the heart of a civil society.

Imagine if government leaders listened to one another rather than thinking about delivering a preconceived response. Imagine if donors listened to existing and perspective grant recipients to better understand the challenges they face and the needs they are working to fulfill.

As the leader of Exponent Philanthropy as well as a foundation trustee, I’ve come to realize how critical it is to listen. At times, this means remaining silent and encouraging others to speak. We all need to provide forums where we can listen to those we work with and those we serve. We need to be in our communities listening, learning, and understanding.

Once while hosting an open conversation I remarked, “I’m not afraid of hearing things that I will find displeasing. I’m afraid of not hearing them.” And once hearing things, it was incumbent on me to listen.

If hearing is the physical act and listening is the understanding and value that follow, the combined benefit is that listening starts to build relationships. Careful listening to words is the lifeblood of connective tissue that can bind together those with similar interests, goals, and desires.

At the recent breakfast, I listened to members share their stories, interests, and passions. I realized how much they had in common and also the value in their individuality. The small group that gathered was indeed a microcosm of Exponent Philanthropy’s greater membership: thoughtful, engaged, and willing to listen and share.

I watched and smiled as I saw local connections being reinforced and, in some cases, newly formed. And it all began with all of us present listening. Are you?

Henry Berman is the CEO of Exponent Philanthropy, the country’s largest association of funders and the only one dedicated to serving foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families and individual donors. His blog post first appeared on The Patterson Foundation website.

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Topics: Grantmakers