THE BLOG

How-To Listen Selfishly To Unselfishly Lead Change

08/27/2013 10:36 am ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

In the course of interviewing dozens of Café Impact social entrepreneurs from multiple continents working on a multiplicity of issues using a myriad of social change methodologies, one bit of advice emerged over and over again: Listen. Learn to be a good listener.

I know, oh I know, this homily sounds trite. Any advice that you might see embroidered on a pillow is rightfully suspect. Nonetheless, in this case - maybe only in this case -- the advice is powerfully true.

"Nothing is more important than listening and trying to understand where the other person is coming from," matter-of-factly counsels Regina Starr Ridley, Publishing Director of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Listening is the industrial spying of social change.

Hoping to get a job with a social change organization? Clemens Pietzner, CEO of the Triskeles Foundation, expects his change agents to have an "insatiable appetite to learn, an ability to listen."

Hoping to make a real difference in your first job? "Managing up requires a lot of humility. It requires a lot of listening...which leads to successfully planting ideas. It's the art of manipulation."...," teaches Kari Hayden, Principal/Founder of m.o. Partners. It is power from below.

Hoping to have a outsized impact in your career? "As smart as I am, [being smart] is limited. When I have the courage to connect up with [others by listening], I become exponentially more wise," concludes Akaya Windwood, President of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, a nationally recognized leadership training program. Without listening, collaboration is impossible.

"Being a good listener [means] approaching a conversation with What can I learn from this person?," selfishly advises Jessamyn Lau, Program Leader at the Peery Foundation. "When your inquiry becomes deeper, you are really trying to understand what the other person has to give you, has to share with you."

Experts generally agree that personal mastery of a skill requires 10,000 hours of focused practice, or about five years (assuming a 40-hour workweek). Are you listening, really listening, 40 hours a week? I'm certainly not.

The internet revolution is why I'm able to write this blog, share Café Impact videos, understand the world more easily, read the Stanford Social Innovation Review online and enjoy news from my friends. It may also be the reason our listening skills are atrophying.

The majority of adults have a vocabulary of around 60,000 words. If you are using them online, you aren't listening. You are starring at a keyboard. You are missing the all-important verbal signals humans send.

Like community organizing or making love, listening is a skill best practiced in the company of other people. Try organizing, listening and loving - all three will change the world.