Last week, Susan Eliot posted a terrific piece on listening (a common theme on her blog The Listening Resource) titled “Listening For Versus Collecting Data.” In it, she talks about the power imbalance – and, I would add, the insensitive mindset – implied by the idea that researchers are “collecting data from subjects” compared to the more useful notion that we are listening “one human to another.” Eliot goes on to cite Martin Buber and his distinction of I-Thou and I-It interactions or relationships between people, with Eliot stating “When we look upon the other person as a ‘thou’ (a unique, sentient human being) rather than an ‘it’ (a data repository), we approach the research with a humanistic perspective, one that is likely to net us rich and meaningful data.”
Extolling the virtues of listening seems almost trite (we all claim to “listen” in some shape or form) yet why is it so very difficult? It is difficult, not only among researchers where listening is (should be) a required skill but, among all of us where listening is a fundamental component of human interaction.
The October 18, 2013 NPR TED Radio Hour program “Haves and Have-Nots” presents two important examples on the importance of listening and, more particularly, the negative effects of not listening well. The first is a TED talk given by Ernesto Sirolli titled “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” where he tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to teach people in Zambia how to grow food. Rather than entering the Zambian community with an open mind and listening ears, the aid workers went about trying to “save” the Zambian people with their preconceived notions of what that means. One result was the planting of crops that were subsequently eaten by 200 hippos. Rather than listening to the needs and knowledge of the local people, these Italian aid workers simply made the kinds of decisions they would make back home in Italy. It was from here that Sirolli developed the Enterprise Facilitation economic development system which is a person-centered approach based on the concept of actively listening to the “local passion” rather than attempting to instigate foreign solutions.
The second example comes from Jacqueline Novogratz and her talk on “Patient Capitalism.” Again, it is a story of trying to “save” the African people by way of preconceived ideas on how that should be done rather than allowing the local people to develop and define what “saving” means in their situation. Once more, listening is the key; with Novogratz, like Sirolli (who wondered why the Zambian people had allowed them to grow crops only to be eaten by nearby hippos and was told “You never asked.”), emphasizing the important point that effective listening revolves around asking the right questions. Novogratz relates the story of helping local women run a bakery and the decision of what color to paint the bakery building and its surrounds. When she didn’t get any input from these women, she elected to paint the bakery the color blue. Only after it was completed and the question was asked did one woman say, ‘Well, our color is really green.’ From this, Novogratz states, “I learned that listening is not only about waiting [for people to say what is on their minds] but it is also learning about how better to ask questions.”
This is why listening is at the core of all research with human beings. Because listening is, not just about patience and open-mindedness but, equally about asking “better” questions, it is as relevant to survey research designs as it is to qualitative methods. Listening goes beyond the end product – e.g., a response to the researcher’s question – and encompasses the manner and substance of the questions themselves. Just ask Coca-Cola. In making the disastrous decision in 1985 to introduce the “new” Coke after conducting extensive – qualitative and quantitative – research, they quickly understood that they had failed to ask one important research question, ‘How would you feel if the current Coke product was no longer available in the marketplace?’ A “classic” case, you might say, of a research design in need of a comprehensive listening strategy.