How Nonprofit Managers Can Benefit From Listening as Allies
Managers know that listening is a critical part of leading high-performing teams. They recognize that it’s the key to unlocking effective communication and ensuring organizational success.
However, if you struggle to listen well, you’re not alone. Many managers experience the perplexing and frustrating reality that listening goals are clear, but achieving them is complicated.
Effective communication can be especially complicated in a nonprofit setting as these organizations involve various participants and stakeholders, including employees, volunteers, donors, boards and more. While these various groups are generally all committed to the mission of the organization, they may have varied approaches, expectations and skill sets around communication standards.
Listening as an ally is a communication practice and well-established framework that provides a practical pathway to help leaders navigate difficult situations, align with others, and re-engage in challenging work relationships with a clear head and more open heart.
Nonprofit Managers Need to Make Listening a Workplace Standard
Listening as an ally is challenging but exceedingly important in a nonprofit environment because leaders believe so strongly in the organization’s purpose and impact. Nonprofit leaders often connect in meaningful ways with their organization. They care deeply about the cause, which is honorable. But, that dedicated outlook can actually be a frequent stumbling block to effective communication.
What’s more, nonprofits, like all organizations, struggle to effectively share information, misunderstand or misinterpret shared information, or react poorly to shared information. The results can compound, diminishing trust, injuring inclusion, blurring roles and responsibilities, misaligning goals, and ultimately eroding organizational outcomes.
For example, take the scenario of an organization focused on social-emotional learning for children that decides to shift its focus in a way that makes it hard for many educators to relate to its core objectives. Highly devoted educators may want to stay involved, but they don’t know how to keep up with the changes. Leaders don’t effectively communicate with or listen to these critical stakeholders, costing the organization time, talent and impact.
Similarly, take another example of a local food pantry that may be overwhelmed due to inflation and the rising cost of food. Lines are long, and resources are stretched. A leader might push harder on the volunteers to reduce long lines rather than listening to their experiences and trying to understand their challenges in the current situation. As a result, membership in the volunteer ranks begins dropping, exacerbating the problems.
Listening as an ally offers a needed solution to this and other relatable circumstances, allowing nonprofit leaders to:
- Notice their feelings in stressful situations and how they guide their listening.
- Recognize the signs of a conversation about to go bad.
- Say the right things to lessen defensiveness and antagonism.
- Engage their curiosity and empathy to guide the conversation to a safe harbor and mutual understanding.
- Build relationships that are more trusting, resilient and long-lasting.
This is especially critical in the nonprofit sector because of the unique emotional challenges facing the staff and stakeholders within them.
How Nonprofit Leaders Can Listen as Allies
Fortunately, effective listening isn’t a genetic trait. It’s a learned skill. Anyone who wants to listen as an ally can learn how to communicate with their teams. Here are three ways to begin that process.
- Make the choice to listen as an ally. This takes emotional intelligence or EQ. It requires self-awareness and self-management to notice when you are resistant, and listening as a skeptic, a judge or an adversary rather than an ally. Focus on your shared goals and decide that understanding the thoughts and feelings of the other is your priority.
- Be curious. Make an effort to learn about the speaker's ideas and situation. To achieve this, leaders may deploy common listening techniques, like bracketing, mirroring, paraphrasing and checking perceptions.
- Express concern. Respond to the speaker's experience with empathy. This might include asking open-ended questions, conveying concern and expressing gratitude.
When leaders choose to listen as allies, the results can be powerful and far-reaching.
In the short term, people feel valued and heard, creating a sustainable organizational culture where people build understanding, cultivate trust and enjoy a sense of belonging.
In the long term, nonprofit leaders embracing listening as an ally can expect to cultivate a culture of trust where people share more openly, speak more briefly and perpetuate strong team performances.
In other words, when leaders listen as allies, organizations flourish, ultimately benefiting the people the organization exists to serve.
Building a culture of trust through effective communication and listening is essential for the success of nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders often deeply connect with their organizations’ purposes, which can make effective communication challenging. Listening as an ally offers a practical framework to navigate difficult situations, align with others and re-engage in challenging work relationships.
Nonprofit leaders can benefit from this practice by noticing their feelings in stressful situations, recognizing the signs of a conversation going poorly, engaging their curiosity and empathy, and building relationships that are more trusting and resilient.
By valuing and hearing the perspectives of all stakeholders, nonprofits can cultivate a sustainable culture of trust, understanding, and belonging, leading to stronger team performances in the long term. Ultimately, effective listening is a learned skill, and any leader can choose to listen as an ally. Nothing less than the organization’s impact is on the line, making it one of the most important decisions leaders will make in 2023 and beyond.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Rachael Grail, a senior consultant at Interaction Associates, aims to enable peak performance in teams through effective communication, strengths-based collaboration, and sustained well-being. As an experienced facilitator and coach, she skillfully weaves new concepts and awareness into practical actions. She leverages a breadth of experience and numerous evidence-based frameworks to be highly responsive to the unique needs of each group she supports.
Rachael supports leaders and teams in global companies, high growth startups and nongovernmental organizations. Her experience includes engagement with clients at: Amazon, Adobe, DocuSign, Meta, Outside PR, PG&E, Service Now, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.