Reflecting on Listening, Interviews with Global Listeners

Interview of Dr. Donde Plowman, Chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Interviewer Dr. Sally J. McMillan, Director (Global Strategy & Corporate Listening) Global Listening Centre, Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

McMillan: Thank you for talking with us about listening. Please share with us why listening is important to you.

Plowman: It’s so basic because without knowing what people are thinking about and what is on their hearts and minds leaders don’t know what to do. These jobs are way too complex for the leader to really know what the path forward is on so many different dimensions. If you think about higher education right now, it just feels like we’ve got a complex path. Public universities have to secure our funding every year. We have an unclear path about how we’re going to re-envision ourselves to be more modern and more driven around customer needs. When I first took this job, I spent a semester doing a listening tour. I started holding office hours. And I was surprised at how much it helped me quickly get a sense of what the campus pulse was. I was trying to listen, through the structure as well, but also setting up opportunities to listen outside the structure. It was a little unnerving. At times I would hear things in office hours that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and then I would call a dean and say, “Some kids came over today, and they were upset about a professor.” I told him it’s up to the dean to address college business, but I just wanted to let him know what I’d heard. I’d also hear from the faculty and staff. It was really helpful to me. I could quickly learn about what people were worried about happy about, and so on.  I think listening is crucial.

McMillan: Let’s transition to the topic of social media and social media listening. In the context of advertising and marketing, social media listening is becoming a very important strategy. In the context of higher education, does social media provide you with a listening tool?

Plowman: It provides a way to listen to “noise.” What you do with that noise is something else. Unfortunately, I think social media is used just to talk—or scream. Last fall we were in midst of having to make some big changes in football, including the head football coach and others in the football program, and an NCAA investigation. There’s a very active group of alumni on Twitter who really wanted an answer from me about what we were doing. Why are you doing this? Don’t do this, do this. And in those early weeks I couldn’t respond to anything—and  I still can’t talk about that investigation. My not speaking back on Twitter infuriated some of those alumni. There is an expectation out there that that people are listening on social media and quickly responding. I asked my team to get me some social media listening metrics because it felt like I was just getting overwhelmed with pressure from social media. But it turned out it was only about 30 different people who were originating all those messages. Five or six of them were the most vocal. I have 10,000 followers on Twitter. It’s hard to discern what they all are thinking. So listening is hard. I think you end up in an echo chamber on social media and you have to remember that. You have to be really careful about what it is you’re hearing, you know. Social media complicates everything. I still use it, even though there’s a lot of risk with that. I use it to share the brand of UT, share the values of UT, share what we’re trying to build, share the spirit of what this place is. I use it more for speaking than listening. I do listen through it, but I’m not sure what I’m hearing a lot of time.

McMillan: Do you personally read your Twitter feed?

Plowman:  Yes. I do read it personally. Sometimes my team will say, “Don’t read it, it’s not nice.” I think it is reflecting everything else that has been going on in society. Vitriol. Divisiveness. Every now and then I’ll look up a particularly nasty comment. It’s not always the case, but many times posters don’t even use their own names. One had only a single follower. It tells me something. I don’t like how people use social media to say such ugly things that they would never say to a person’s face.

McMillan: Social media listening tools can also help with picking up on some of those less-dominant things—help you hear a bit more nuance of what people are saying in social media.

Plowman: Yes, the engagement metrics are very interesting. Since COVID-19, we have been doing virtual alumni tailgates. And out of that came over a million engagements. Social media is not just about shouting. But it does require us to learn new ways of listening and gauging what’s really important. I’m hungry for that kind of data. Another way that I use social media to listen, is, I follow a lot of people—thought leaders in higher education, presidents, and so on. That form of listening helps me to know what others are thinking about solving the big problems that higher education faces.

McMillan:  You’ve touched on the idea of social media as a tool for speaking rather than listening. Could you expand on that a bit? Do you see that to be the case in higher education?

Plowman: Oh, yes. I was just reading something about a president who was fired at another university. Part of the pressure around firing him was created just because of news that gets out so quickly on social media. And I think some of it is dangerous because it sets an expectation for immediate response to things. If you didn’t take the action that the people who are tweeting want, then it looks like you haven’t responded. You may have taken an action. But you may just have a different vision about what is the right action. And then sometimes it’s tricky to know how much to put out there. In some ways it sounds like a crybaby, but these jobs are getting harder and harder because of social media, and there is this kind of mob mentality that takes over. All of a sudden, it can feel like there’s a crisis. I just don’t ever want to be making decisions where it feels like I just gave in to a mob on social media. I know some higher education leaders are just leaving social media. I understand the desire to do that. Social media can influence your judgment. But that doesn’t feel like the right answer. Just because you aren’t reading it doesn’t keep the fury from developing. And a part of the community can be very upset. They’re still upset, but if you weren’t on social media, you wouldn’t know it.  It would still be true. And it does bleed over, and I mean you’re going to find out.

McMillan:  Yes, there are multiple examples of social media elevating something that is a concern for a small group of people and making people believe that it is a “crisis.”

Plowman:  Everything’s politicized now, everything. And everything can become a weapon that just further divides us. Pick a topic and it can become a weapon even if it affects a tiny percent of the population – everyone has an opinion. And opinions are often used to divide us. As a leader I am charged with the well-being of all students, faculty, staff, yet often there are conflicting needs and opinions. How does a leader decide what to pay attention to, what to act on? If one person is suffering, that’s not a good thing. What is the leader’s responsibility around one person? Or let’s consider the one student who feels that in a classroom they were stereotyped or marginalized. That is significant to that student, as it would be to me. And it’s significant to the institution, yet at the same time, the leaders have to weigh what that means in the total context of dealing systematically with issues like discrimination and marginalization. These are hot button topics.

McMillan: You have talked about how you did a “listening tour” and how you use social media for listening. Could you talk a bit more about other tools you use for listening?

Plowman: I just got off a call with the deans and the cabinet. Listening carefully to the members of my team is critical. It includes looking at people’s body language and eliciting responses from people. I start every cabinet meeting with an agenda item for reflection. I start with a question. It may be something as simple as, “What accomplishments to you feel best about this week?” or, “What went wrong last week that this group can help you with?” or, “What great thing happened over the weekend in your family?” I like to get the group warmed up and move to a slightly more personal level where people might be slightly more prone to talk and speak up. It’s hard on Zoom, but it’s important for building a culture of shared leadership.  We are all in this together. Also, when I do performance evaluations, I ask my team members, “What do you need from me this coming year?” I try to end most meetings by asking, “What do you need for me to be able to do what you just talked about?” Leaders need to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. I guess in the old days we call that active listening, right?

McMillan:  Right!

Plowman: I think as a leader, sometimes you do things that really have a functional outcome; there are other things you do that are more symbolic. Ever since I was a dean, I’ve always held office hours. The truth is, over the years, a very low percentage of students or faculty use the office hours, but they love the idea that it’s there. It’s like sending a message that I’m here to listen. I’m inviting them to walk in and tell me whatever they would like. I’m not necessarily going to give the answer they want, but they like to know that they have a leader who is willing to listen.

McMillan: The willingness to listen is a powerful message in itself.

Plowman: When I first started office hours here, there would be a long line of people waiting to see me. And then, with time, the demand for it decreased. Then with COVID-19 what we found was they did come to Zoom office hours. And then, once we came back to campus, I decided to do office hours part-time here on campus and part-time on Zoom. But no one came to the on-campus hours at all. The technology for meeting and listening is changing. We have to make sure we are meeting people’s needs with tools they are comfortable using.

McMillan: How could higher education play a role in improving listening in contemporary society?

Plowman: I think we need to teach our students how to listen. They need to understand that dialogue is not just shouting on social media. They need to learn to disagree and civilly listen to different points of view. They need to understand that disagreement doesn’t mean that the other person is evil or something. Shouting on social media feels like there is no opportunity to really talk. We need to teach students how to have respectful, meaningful dialogue. I feel like in the first year, we need to get students in a course and talk about civil discourse, freedom of speech, and respect. Because if we don’t teach them those things, they’re going to leave here and become people who scream at each other. We can’t solve all the problems in our society, but higher education has a platform. We need to start reflecting on what’s going on in society and provide an opportunity for personal growth. We need to insist on respectful interaction and open dialogue on campus. We need to stop dividing people into “camps” – faculty vs. administrators, students vs. staff, etc.  We need to model that behavior. Our students can begin to change the world. I don’t know all the answers for how to do that.  But I am committed to do working to make it happen.

McMillan: I look forward to seeing what you do.

Our Ethics Committee Chair Kirk Hazlett interviewed Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Kirk: For starters, how would you define “listening”? What, to you, are the hallmarks of the truly sincere listener?

Craig: It doesn’t seem fair to try to describe listening from any perspective other than that of an engineer and 1950’s style nerd, who’s learned much the hard way.

For example, listening is beyond hearing in that, for my people, it’s an implicit request for help solving a problem, and yet, that’s often completely wrong. Sometimes the speaker just wants you to hear them, without attempting to solve anything, and without judgement.

However, in the worlds of news, nonprofit work, and in everyday transactions, there are parties who intend you harm, so you do have to judge their words. “Con man” is short for “confidence man”, which is to say that you really do need to do some real-time reality testing.

Listening also requires a certain humility, since you might be sure about something, and yet be completely wrong. The party you’re listening to might help you out by setting you straight.

I guess effective listening is about hearing what a person needs you to hear, without problem solving, just enough judgement for truth-testing, and the humility to accept when you’re wrong.

Kirk: From your perspective as a successful businessman and committed philanthropist, how important is the act of listening, especially in today’s somewhat “challenging” world?

Craig: Aside from mitigating the actions of con men and scammers, there are well-intended people who don’t listen to the people that they have good intentions about helping.

That is, say you’re listening to someone who allegedly represents some group, maybe an underserved one, you need to consider whether or not the speaker has actually listened to the group they purport to represent.

Often, nonprofits and other groups genuinely want to help an underserved population, but they feel that they know better how to help that population than the people included in that population. They might go through the motions of listening, but already had made conclusions prior to the conversation. Sometimes, in the urge to conclude what they’ve already concluded, they’ll “listen” to people who might be part of the underserved group, but who are compensated for telling the nonprofits what they want to hear.

This problem is manifest in “White Savior Syndrome”, where people of privilege want to help out, but really never listen, because they feel they know best.

Kirk: How do you believe you, yourself, have evolved as a listener? What do you do differently today than, perhaps, 10 years ago?

Craig: I try really hard to only listen to someone describing a problem, and then to avoid feeling I have to help solve the problem, unless they request that.

Even when I’m sure I’m in the right, I try to consider that I might be very much in the wrong, and, sometimes that’s definitely the case.

Kirk: What role does “ethics” play in listening?

Craig: The core of ethics, for me, is to treat people like I want to be treated.

Well, I’d like to be listened to, seriously, so I should do so with others. (I probably fail at that more often than I’d like.)

Kirk: From an ethical standpoint, what difference can ethical listening make in an organization’s …or a government’s…plans and programs?

Craig: Per #2, and White Savior Syndrome, an organization which listens ethically might actually do the job they intend to do, rather than making things worse.

Kirk: How are we (the world, that is) doing on that level? Is there a particular
organization that, to you, epitomizes the concept of ethical listening?

Craig: I can’t think of one, but I do get useful help from the books of Deborah Tannen.

Kirk: I know I, for one, will be sharing this interview with my Communication students at The University of Tampa. What advice do you have for the thousands of young men and women who will, at some point, become our business and government leaders? What should they be doing today to prepare for tomorrow?

Craig: Treat people like they want to be treated.

That means listening with humility.

That means forgetting what you think you know.

That means good listening as requisite to good customer service.

Ivar A. Fahsing (Ph.D.) is one of the world leaders in the field of investigative management. Dr. Fahsing truly holds that an improved understanding of the value of listening is fundamental to success within the law and the security sector. Dr. Fahsing is currently on a 1-year unpaid leave from his daily position as an Associate Professor and Detective Chief Superintendent at the Norwegian Police University College in Oslo. Dr. Fahsing has been hired as a subject matter expert by the International division at Centre for Human Rights – Faculty of Law, University of Oslo.

William Patrick McPhilamy III (JD) Director (Judicial Listening) GLC and a renowned lawyer who was recently appointed as Ambassador at Arbitrator Intelligence. He has been practicing law for over 20 years. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Master of Law degree; California Western School of Law with a Juris Doctor; and Virginia Commonwealth University with a BS. He also has a Diploma, Institute on International and Comparative Law in London, England, from the San Diego School of Law, and he has studied law at the University of Oxford.

William: Prof. Fahsing in 2009 you wrote an article on investigative interviewing, and suggested that training in the area was in development. Since that time you have written several articles on this topic. Would you tell us how developed that training is now, and how you address listening in the context of an investigative interview?

Ivar: How the state meets a crime suspect in a high-stakes situation is in my view the acid test of a true democracy. As stated a very long time ago by Sigmund Freud: “The first requisite of civilization is that of justice.” A better recognition in the global law and security sector of how something as elementary as listening might help us put into practice fundamental democratic principles, such as rule of law, equality, dignity and respect. Promoting listening in security and law may help us keep our societies safe and free. Therefore, all public servants should listen more than they talk.

I am currently on a leave from the police while working full-time with the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo. With the support of the Norwegian government and in companionship with other partners around the world, our aim is to improve human rights compliance within the chain of justice, including judges, prosecutors and the police. To this end, we teach judges, prosecutors and police detectives investigative interviewing methods that could contribute to preventing torture and errors of justice and cooperate with the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), UNPOL (The United Nations Police) and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to develop global standards for police investigation. Listening skills in combination open-ended questions have the power to help us counteract social stereotypes and cognitive biases that otherwise might ruin criminal investigations, and a number of other critical and complex operations.

William: You are on the police academy faculty–is listening taught in any of the academy’s coursework? If so, could you describe it?

Ivar: The way a police officer meets and communicates with a random bystander, a victim, a witness or a suspect of a crime is, in my view, the acid test of professionalism. That is why the Norwegian Police University College favours empathy and communication skills as a critical feature all the way from recruitment of future officers and through our three-year bachelor studies in policing. The ability to actively listen and think before you speak is essential at all levels of our education. We firmly believe that this helps us to solve our most difficult tasks in a better way–no matter what the case or your level of specialization. Still, how we communicate also affects how citizens think about us. Annual citizen surveys in Norway show that police officers are amongst the professional groups that score the highest when it comes to trust amongst the population. Hence, investigative interviews in their myriad forms are contact points between the state and the public – their importance should not be underestimated.

William: I noticed 35 of your articles listed on your page of the police academy website. Do any of these describe your approach to listening in some detail?

Ivar: Yes–a number of my articles, books and book chapters do since listening is so fundamental in the scientific approach to communication in law which we call investigative interviewing. Here is a summary from a blog I wrote on the homepage of the British government in 2018: https://blogs.fcdo.gov.uk/fcoeditorial/2018/06/26/uk-interviewing-and-investigation-techniques-take-a-detour-through-norway-and-go-global/

William: What is your approach to listening?

Ivar: A better recognition in the law and security sector of how something as elementary as listening might help us put into practice fundamental democratic principles such as the rule of law, equality, dignity and respect. The opposite of an open-minded listening approach is, in my view known as coercive interrogation techniques or even worse–outright torture. Sadly, are such highly unethical and dangerous methods still in use around the globe, causing nothing but suffering, distrust and unreliable evidence. Investigative interviewing and active listening techniques is a science‐based approach which is developed as a human rights-compliant alternative to coercive interrogation methods. Listening in combination with open-ended questions will maximize the information obtained whilst minimizing the risks to the interviewee, the integrity of the investigative process and the overall criminal justice system.

William: Did any of your mentors, or teachers, emphasize or discuss the importance of listening?

Ivar: Oh–I could name several, but if I have to pick one, it must be Prof. Ray Bull from England. He is a pioneer and one of the world’s leading experts in forensic psychology investigative interviewing. I was fortunate enough to learn from him more than 20 years ago when we set out to change the way then Norwegian Police did their interviews with suspects. Prof. Bull and his colleagues have always pointed out that the interviewers ability to listen and to maintain the use of open-ended questions the most defining characteristic of an expert interviewer.

William: How do you think listening might promote peace and justice? Do situations like those of George Floyd and others in the USA point to issues with not listening?

Ivar: As stated above, I think good listening is perhaps the best indicator of a professional police officer. Listening requires and signifies both empathy and respect. At the same, it will give you information, and hence promote better judgements and decision-making. I understand that the problems which we now see unfolding in the US and elsewhere are complex, complicated and difficult. Listening alone will not solve all these problems. Still, I feel confident that officers with good communication skills run a much lower risk of having to resort to power or violence. Trust is essential. In smaller, more ethnically homogeneous countries like Norway, building trust is easier. There are, however, now shortcuts to a better relationship. Officers in should focus on building trust at the lowest level possible and multiply out from there. Officers should be on foot rather than in cars. They should talk to people, listen and get to know them. By doing more of that, you will slowly start building more trust. To be honest, I think all police services around the world should do more of this—more should also be done in my own country. Trust is something you have to create and earn, every day.

William: Most of us know about criminal investigation from what we see on television, in the movies, or in the news. How would you contrast what you do as an investigator with these characters and their behaviors? That is: How do you relate to the way detectives communicate and listen on television detective/crime shows.

Ivar: It should come as no surprise that the way detectives typically are depicted in movies, and TV productions are very far from how we train our officers. The heroes on the screen are often aggressive, stubborn and narrow-minded. This is the exact opposite of what we are looking for in a good detective. Listening is useful for a number of reasons, both inside and outside of the police station. On the other hand, it is probably not the most entertaining thing to watch on TV.

Our Executive Editor, Dr Rebecca Babcock, interviewed Dr Sandra Woodley, President, The University of Texas Permian Basin.

Rebecca: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for the Global Listening Centre. Looking at this figure of leadership types, which type of leader do you believe yourself to be in these quadrants, and how does that leadership style affect your listening?

Sandy: When I look at the quadrants it’s a little like personality tests and management tests. You can really see yourself a little bit in every single one of the quadrants. For example, when I look at the quadrant where I have a check mark by every attribute, I think, quite honestly, I am most concentrated between the Listening Leader and the Driver. I do end up having a very strong direction and a sense of urgency around accomplishing goals. And I do think that I struggle constantly in my professional career to improve listening. It doesn’t come easily to me. I end up talking more than I listen. And I think part of my own professional development over the past 10-15 years has been, I really need to work on making sure that I really do stop and listen and legitimately try to understand all of the perspectives before making a decision. But by nature I’m a decisive person. I genuinely do care about what other people say about what’s going on. I want to make sure that I look at relationships as a way to understand the issue and to validate the different opinions. I think the only aspect on the Listening Leader that was questionable to me–I had check marks by everyone except for “may get bogged down in process.“ I don’t tend to get bogged down in process. I think process is really important. So I think that I got most of the check marks by Listening Leader and Driver. If I look at Peacekeeper, certainly I think it is true that I place a high value on relationships, and I do have a caring disposition. At the same time, I am not inclined to do the work for others instead of letting them do it. So that’s really not me. Also, I do not necessarily listen to the loudest voice. And I do not avoid difficult conversations. So, less really on the Peacekeeper. When I look at Manager, I do work really hard at keeping things running smoothly. Managing is a lot of what I do. Complying with directives– I am a rule follower. I want to make sure that we do things properly. I don’t think I generally neglect relationships. And I am not a micromanager. So that was a very long way to say I have a little bit of the attributes of all of them. I think I’m really more in between a Listening Leader and a Driver.

Rebecca: But I see you more as a change agent than keeping to the status quo.

Sandy: Most definitely. I think that’s true. And I think I’m probably midway between facilitate and top down. That’s how I would describe myself. I am sure my husband may describe me differently. And maybe other people will describe me differently. But that is my perception of myself.

Rebecca: Since you’ve been at UTPB, we have seen a lot of changes and that’s what we wanted. So it makes sense.

Sandy: Right.

Rebecca: So give me an example of your leadership style affecting your listening. Do you feel your listening was positively or negatively affected and why or why not?

Sandy: As I said before, I think generally, if I’m honest with myself, I am not as good a listener as I need to be. I am not. I think is not my strong suit. It is not my natural inclination to wait until everyone has talked for me to insert what I think about the issue, and I think that’s an area that I genuinely do try to improve. But, I am an extrovert; I have a lot of responsibilities. I think very deeply and thoughtfully about the initiatives of the university, and I have strong opinions. And so, my work professionally with myself is to make sure that I do, or at least I am cognizant, and I think I am aware, that I need to improve what is not a natural inclination to me to get more information before making decisions. And I think I have made some progress in my life at working on that. But I still need more work.

Rebecca: How can you get everyone’s opinion when there are thousands of people whose opinions are out there?

Sandy: It’s not always practical, but I do think it is important to make sure that there is a way to facilitate dissenting opinions. I consider myself a secure person and a secure leader. I am not threatened at all by someone who thinks differently than me. I am not afraid to be challenged. I genuinely do believe that the way that we make the most progress as leaders of organizations is to really tease out an honest debate about whatever issue is at hand. So when people disagree, I prefer that they disagree respectfully, but I don’t get offended if they don’t. If they’re not respectful. I think you’ve noticed. Hopefully you’ve noticed that about me.

Rebecca: [laughs]

Sandy: I don’t take it personally, I think, is really the better way to say that. And so trying to make sure that there is an opportunity for all viewpoints to come together is ideal. I do also think it is important to be decisive enough that you can make decisions and move on. I have seen leaders who are very intent on getting all of the information and listening, and listening, and listening, to the point to where you have a paralysis by analysis and you don’t make a decision. You have to be assertive enough get enough information to make the decision, but move forward in a manner that actually is timely enough to get the job done.

Rebecca: That’s why you didn’t check “get bogged down in process.”

Sandy: Because I’ve got stuff to do. I’ve gotta move.

Rebecca: It would take too long to check in with each and every person on every issue. Listening obviously is a very complex process, so what aspects do you consider when you listen?

Sandy: It also depends on the decision that is on the table, who is involved in the decision-making process, what the stakes are of the particular initiative that you are talking about, and so I think it really depends on the situation, all of the things that do come into play. When I look at power differences in age for example, I think about how earnest that I try to be in understanding our students.

Rebecca: They are a different generation.

Sandy: They are vulnerable, and they don’t have power. Their opinions matter more than almost anybody else’s around here, really, because they are who we are here to serve. I do have a very strong sense of justice, in the sense of I want to make sure that I have an opportunity to level the playing field for people or situations where they don’t have the power for themselves to speak up or the political capital to speak up. And so it’s really important to me to make sure that there’s balance in the conversation. Back to the loudest person in the room. Sometimes the loudest person in the room is right, and sometimes they’re not. And most of the decisions that a president makes is not a consensus. You want to understand all of the complexities of what you are trying to do. But there may be an overwhelming popular consensus for something that really would be detrimental to the university. I am the one that’s responsible for that. So I’m not managing by popular vote, even if I do want to understand everyone’s opinion. Does that make sense?

Rebecca: Yes.

Sandy: And so I think non-verbals are important too. I find it important in my own dealings with my executive staff, or when I’m meeting with faculty, or when I’m meeting with the STEM academy1, when there are really very emotional issues at stake, to try to look at the non-verbal cues. I have been in meetings where you have very introverted people, who are very well respected, very smart, but they will not automatically speak up when you have a lot of loud voices clanging around each other. In those instances, I try to pick up on those non-verbal cues and give a voice to someone that may not speak up on their own, but really might have something very important to say. And at the same time, I think the non-verbal cues of, when someone is getting upset, and they feel very strongly about something, well, I wanna know more about why you are so upset. What am I missing that I didn’t know? There have been times where you are in a conversation and someone is getting very upset, and you’re thinking, I don’t even understand why you’re so—but then if I can listen and draw it out, oh well, I didn’t know that piece of the story, now I understand why you are so positively impacted by the decision that we’d make here. So I do think it varies based on what’s going on and the environment is another important point. If I have a town hall meeting with hundreds of people, it’s a very difficult venue to gain knowledge and information about what the group thinks. That environment does not really lend itself to the kind of knowledge that I may need, but yet that town hall meeting may be very important for the people in that room to be able to see me and to be able to hear what I have to say. So in that sense I’m not listening at all.

Rebecca: Well, it’s two ways. They have to listen to you, too.

Sandy: They have to listen to me, and then I try to facilitate later. And I think the STEM academy is an example of that. I mean, we are going through a task force with meetings now to make sure that we can find a positive outcome for the STEM academy to continue, and trying to really listen to what the parents think and what the teachers think and what the students think and what the realities on the ground are about, what we can and cannot do going forward. It’s messy; it’s complicated. And that’s OK. It’s like the washing machine method where you agitate on something for a while, and say, OK, well, let’s see. And then a month later you go back and revisit, and you learn a little bit more and make a little more progress.

Rebecca: The next question is about active listening. How do you define active listening, what does it entail for you?

Sandy: Well the standard definition of course, is you are listening with of all your faculties, not just not with your ears. You are paying attention; you are not on your phone. You are trying to gain a deeper understanding of what someone is trying to say, I think active listening is facilitated by listening and asking good questions so that you pay attention. Don’t ask a question that they just told you that you weren’t paying attention to, because we are all guilty of that. I just answered that question! I think those things are important in active listening. I think very few people do it well. To be honest, I think very few CEOs do it well. And I am in that category. I think it is important to continue to learn about listening skills. I am very supportive of the Global Listening Centre. We all have a lot to learn. Particularly in this day and age where opinions and thoughts are so polarized. People consume their information through very biased venues. We all do.

Rebecca: Yes, yes.

Sandy: Like you said before the interview started that you didn’t believe in smartphones. Well, I do believe in smartphones. Part of the downfall is that I read through my newsfeed, and it feeds me the things that I click on that I’m interested in. So, I am not getting the complete picture. And the same is true with someone who has a different set of views. So trying to find a way to cut through what is fact and what is opinion, which is difficult these days, and listening to each other, is important.

Rebecca: My students say they pick up their news from international sources. Because they are less biased than US news services. They use the BBC. Supposedly it’s less biased.

Sandy: There’s bias in all of it. And I think that it’s important, even as uncomfortable as it is, to read something that you disagree with, that you know is biased in the other direction, so that it helps you to triangulate. And try to get to facts as opposed to alternative facts.

Rebecca: And why someone would feel that way, because everyone has good will, we hope.

Sandy: And some don’t. Let’s just face it. People have agendas. There are instances where you’re spinning information to the point where it actually is untrue. There are examples of that on all sides of any topic that you can listen to or that you can observe. As a CEO of an institution, I feel very strongly that it’s important to make sure, number one, to the extent that we can, that everyone has the same set of facts. If it’s not a fact, it doesn’t belong in the list of facts. So let’s try to get what’s verifiable on any topic or issue that we’re talking about, and then let’s categorize the rest of the information as questions, or opinions, or feelings or concerns. That’s when I think you can get to a conversation where people can really listen to each other, and you don’t have to debate what can already be verified in another way.

Rebecca: Can you give me an example of when you listened actively, and how you deconstructed a surface narrative?

Sandy: So let’s use the STEM academy because I think I’ve done that well and I’ve done it not well. I think I have room to improve, and I think I’ve learned from that. When we went down the pathway of trying to find a long-term option for STEM, I really didn’t estimate properly the opinions of the STEM family.

Rebecca: They love their school.

Sandy: And I love their school. But I really thought that they would see the option I presented as a good option because it solved some of the problems that we wouldn’t have the ability to solve before, but I was wrong about that. I was wrong about that because but I didn’t ask them. That was a mistake. It wasn’t done with malice, it was done with good intentions, but it was still a mistake. And so now, I have the opportunity to step back and really work through that the proper way. These are the realities. These are our options. Let’s spend time over the next year or two and try to find a solution. A solution must be found. So the answer is not that we’re not doing anything. We must do something. But everybody then has the opportunity in a safe way to listen to each other, and participate in the debate, and do so in a way that they can have the confidence that I’m not going to make a decision without consulting. And that’s what I did before. I made a decision without consulting. Lesson learned. That was the wrong way to do it. We can still get to a solution that can benefit the university and STEM. Everyone will not agree on that solution. There will still be wailing and gnashing of teeth all along the way until we get to the proper ending. But I think that’s a good example of how we hope our leaders are. We hope our leaders are coachable. We hope that our leaders are reflective, and we hope that our leaders are secure enough to admit when a mistake has been made, and then to try to make a remedy. There have been plenty of times when I can look back and say I did that well. And then I can look back and say, well, that was a train wreck [laughs] over the period of my career. I’ll give you another quick example. Early in my career when I was a chief financial officer in Kentucky one of my jobs there was to work with all of the institutions both two years and four years in the entire state of Kentucky and revise their funding formula: how capital dollars are distributed among the institutions, and who gets what kind of money from the formula. You think that’s a pretty–a lot of tension in those discussions. So I took an entire year to work with all of the entities and to try to come up with very specific proposals that I believed met the policy objectives and balanced the needs of the institutions. And everybody was a little bit unhappy with it. So that’s why I think I did that pretty good. I did OK. Nobody said, “This is awesome!” And no one said, “This is terrible!” It’s like,

Rebecca: Yeah.

Sandy: Well, OK.

Rebecca: Compromise.

Sandy: Struck the balance. But it took a long time, and an entire year in subcommittees, when everyone was able to have their say. And so I think that went well. So at different times we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, I think.

Rebecca: Do you want to make any statements about any other issues or problems that could be solved by better listening?

Sandy: We talked about that. I think I’m guilty, everyone’s guilty about making up your mind about a particular societal issue or have really strong opinions and strong experiences without really stopping and listening to alternative views. Name any topic. Immigration reform, to throw out a big, large topic. It’s complex. It’s not that every immigrant that comes across the border is a rapist or murderer. It is also true that some rapists and murderers make their way across the border. It’s not true that all immigrants are taking advantage of the system and taking jobs from Americans. Many, many, many undocumented immigrants do very important work here. But then the opposite view is true too. Where you do have situations where it can be detrimental. A drain on our systems. How much can we accumulate from these major world crises where you have these–

Rebecca: Refugees

Sandy: Refugees with horrible situations. And so I think the politicizing which is inevitable of these issues is something that can’t be avoided, but I think if people in general can take a step back, myself included, and have that uncomfortable opportunity to really consider and examine your own beliefs in light of what someone else believes. I have close friends and family and people that I respect that feel very different than I do politically. They’re not bad people. They’re not bad and I’m good; I am not good and they’re bad. Just to use politics as one example.

Rebecca: The sides don’t listen to each other. I see that all the time.

Sandy: And it’s more and more polarized. Even before, but I can feel myself flash up on a flash point that I feel strongly about, and I’m thinking, you know, that is not helpful either, so that is an opportunity. And I think the ability, regardless of the difference of opinion, to use listening as a way to find that Venn diagram where some part in the middle we can agree upon. What are the common themes that can bring us together? We don’t have to agree on everything. But there are overlaps, between immigration, or any kind of topic that goes along those lines. There’s common ground, and you only do find the common ground if you find reasonable people who are willing to suspend their own strong beliefs enough to listen to a good point that happens on the other side.

Rebecca: Please give an example of a specific problem that you knew had been solved by people listening to each other.

Sandy: There are many examples. I really do hope, using the STEM academy, and continuing with that as an example, where we’re going to find a solution that provides all of our objectives. I really do believe that we have the opportunity. Now, again I think the core of that can be met and there will be differences of opinion of whether or not that was the best option when we get to the end. But going through the process, and the complicated process, and sometimes uncomfortable process, of allowing dissenting views to be elevated, I think is an important part of the process. As I’ve met with parents on the STEM academy and we’ve had some difficult conversations, and they are angry at me, some of them. Well, I took the time to have small group meetings with them. They could ask me any kind of question, and by the time you get to the end of an hour meeting it’s not that you agree on everything, but what you do find is a much better understanding on the part of both. I understand them better. They understand me better. And so I think that is a situation where I think we are making some progress. And it can’t happen through memos and emails.

Rebecca: Face to face.

Sandy: Only that personal conversation.

Rebecca: I think we’re done! Thank you!

Responses from Steven A. Beebe, Ph.D.
Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Texas State University
Interviewer Prof. Michael Purdy, Past Vice Chair & Member Global Listening Centre.

1. What is the role of listening in your work and your life-long study of communication?

Listening is central to my work as both an educator and academic leader. During my 45-year academic career in higher education, listening was the quintessential skill in connecting to both students and colleagues.

Listening is essential when connecting to students: Central to any model of education is the ability to respond and adapt to learners. Although student responses on examinations and course assignments provide feedback about how well students have mastered the material, listening is vital to help develop lessons that ensure students will learn. Listening to students is essential when crafting tailor-made instruction that meets student’s specific needs. Listening includes more than responding to words. Listening involves observing and responding to student’s nonverbal messages. A quizzical look which suggests the material is challenging or a smile that indicates the material is mastered are vital cues that help effective teaching and learning happen.

Listening is essential when leading and responding to colleagues: I spent 80% of my academic life as an administrator or academic leader, including serving as associate chair, chair, associate dean and president of the National Communication Association. In each of these leadership roles listening to others was vital when considering the needs of others. An administrator is one who seeks to assist others do their job. An administrator is a servant. Without listening it would be impossible to respond to the needs of those whom one serves.

2. How do you see listening role in elementary education? If the role would change in high school or higher education, how would it change?

Listening skill is vital not only in higher education but at all levels of instruction, especially among younger children. Although rarely taught as a separate subject in elementary or secondary schools, listening is vital to student success—both as learners as well as learning how to be good citizens. Listen is often taught indirectly through modeling and informal study. But good listeners are essential at every grade level.

There is evidence that younger children are especially attentive when listening. Although younger children may have a shorter attention span, when they listen, they listen. I remember reading stories to my sons when they were young. I would only have to read the story once and they would remember it. There were some evenings when I was tired and I would try to skip a page or two; but they would not let me! They knew the story only after hearing it once. Younger children are attentive. As we get older we learn how to fake attention and our mind wanders. Although we have the potential for greater listening as we mature, we often don’t use all of our “listening muscles.” Younger children as well as older children would benefit from solid, research-based listening training.

I often present listening seminars to adults. One of my most popular seminars is called “A Leader’s Skill in Listening.” It focuses on the listening skills that adults need to master. Yet many of the same skills can be learned at a younger age. Often, the same skills I teach to executives and older students are those that can be learned and mastered by younger children. I teach a three step method using a very simple framework: Stop, look and listen. The “stop step” is about being mindful, aware, and consciously competent of one’s ability to listen and focus. To “stop” is to calm the mental chatter and focus on the message of others. The “look step” is about being sensitive to nonverbal messages. To “look” is to listening between the lines for the meta-message, the unspoken message. Emotions and attitudes are typically communicated nonverbally. The final step, “listen” is to focus on the details coupled with the big ideas presented, whether it is interpersonal listening or public listening. Of course, these skills involve a host of related skills and competencies. It is not quite as simple as it may seem. Although these skills may seem like common sense, they are not common practice. My job as a listening educator is to teach listening skills so that they become common practice.

3. How do you find listening relevant in everyday life?

Just as communication has task and relational elements, listening fulfills both task/instrumental functions as well as relational functions in everyday life.  Tasks simply would not be achieved unless the message was understood.  Whether a message is mediated via radio, podcasts, television, or other video sources, the ability to listen is how we process and hopefully comprehend.

Here’s the way I described the importance of listening in my co-authored book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime8th edition(Boston: Pearson, in press): Research has found that being a good listener was the most important skill to have when working with others in groups an teams.[1]Research has also found that workers who perceived their supervisors as better listeners reported being happier, and more satisfied on the job, and more satisfied with their work-life balance.[2]In addition, one of the hallmarks of an effective leader is being a good listener.[3]Research has also found that organizations that “listen and respond” to those who contact them via social media are perceived more favorably.[4]

4. You write about rhetoric and public communication; how does your thought relate to the public sphere?

Listening is equally vital in public communication contexts. A public speaker needs to first listen to his or her audience to assess the needs, interests, values and objectives of the listeners. Here’s another except from my book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime:

Without effective listening skills, you’ll likely miss some messages in public speaking situations. Listening skills are especially important when you need to understand and retain spoken information.[5] There is evidence, for example, that listening skills correlate with academic ability. One study found that almost half of college students who had low scores on a listening test were on academic probation at the end of their first year in college. In comparison, just over 4 percent of the students who had high scores on the same listening test were on academic probation.[6] Improving your listening skills can improve your grade-point average.[7]

Listening is not just for audience members; it is also important for speakers. Good speakers are audience-centered. They consider the needs of their listeners first. They understand what will hold listeners’ attention. Many effective speakers acquire this knowledge by listening to audience members one on one before a talk or lecture. Effective speakers also listen to the feedback from their audiences and use that feedback to adjust their speeches while giving them.[8]

5. If you could relate these thoughts about listening onto the global stage what would you suggest as a path leading to listening on that scale?

Listening is especially important as one interacts with someone who is not from the same cultural background. In fact, the more different one is from someone, whether there are differences of age, culture, gender, gender identify, gender orientation or any other difference, the more important it is to listen to others. Listening is important, especially when there are differences, to not only understand others but to also be open to change. A good listener seeks not only to understand the message of others but to also be sensitive to opportunities to grow and change and adapt to the messages of others. The greater the difference between people the more important it is that listeners be willing to change and not merely understand a message. On the global stage listening is a fundamental requirement for effective communication. To be a compassionate, empathic listener is an essential element of listening to others who have different cultural, gender, or a host of other different perspectives.

6. How can we think about Global Listening as defined by the GLC as leading to global peace? 

One of the reasons the Global Listening Centre is important because peace is simply not possible without listening. Listening is a pancultural competency. During all span of human civilizations, peace is only possible when individuals and leaders understand others. Peace and listening go hand in hand.  In managing any conflict I identify four sets of interrelated skills.  To manage conflict a person should: (1) manage emotions, (2) manage communication, (3) manage goals, and (4) manage the problem.  To transform a conflict into a problem to be solved rather than a fight to win, listening is essential.  First, when managing emotions we should listen both to ourselves and others when seeking to calm our own spirit and manage furtive emotions. Second, listening is essential when managing communication.  In fact, it is impossible to manage communication and achieve understanding without listening.  The third set of skills, goal setting, occurs when we can listen to the goals of another and see where the do and don’t overlap with our own goals.  And finally problem solving, the fourth set of competencies, occurs only when a person listens well to others.  Global peace is possible only when leaders use listening skills to manage differences and achieve peace.

7. Any other thoughts about global listening, or listening in general, you want to share?

Humans spend more time listening than any other communication task. So where humans spend the majority of their time should also be a prime emphasis for research, study and application. The GLC does outstanding work in making listening a central concept that enhancing listening.

Here are additional excerpts from my book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime:

Your skill as a listener has important implications for the relationships you establish with others.[9] In interpersonal communication situations, the essence of being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. Listening to others is a way to express your interest in, compassion for, and even your love for another.[10]One research team found that incidents of interpersonal transcendence in which a person felt a “total immersion in an interaction, a deep sense of understanding, feelings of mutuality, new insight and playfulness” occurred when they felt someone had truly listened to them.[11]Listening also influences how others respond to us; when people are in the presence of someone whom they perceive to be a good listener, they are likely to respond with greater empathy and interest.[12] A key difference between couples who remain married and those who divorce is the ability to listen to each other.[13] Partners in marriages that endure report that being a good listener is key to a satisfying marital relationship. Even with the prevalence of social media, we still expect our friends to “listen” to us whether we post or tweet.[14]

8. What would you write about listening during a crisis?

A crisis simply means the outcome of the communication task is urgent and time sensitive. A crisis needs attention now. The listening process during a crisis is similar to listening during conflict. The first task is to calmly and rationally set the stage for understanding. Listening is a required skill for addressing any urgent issue. Crisis communication is best when it is approached as a rational and logical problem to be solved. But without managing emotions and managing one’s own spirit, listening is less likely to occur and the crisis or emergency will continue. Leaders who listen during a crisis flourish. Leaders who listen inspire confidence. Leaders to focus on their own needs rather than the needs of others are less effective. A poor leader makes the crisis about himself or herself or blames others. A poor leader first tries to fix the blame rather than fixing the problem. A good leader during a crisis seeks to inspire confidence and offers realistic encouragement based on facts and science.

9. What would you want other people to write about you and how you listen during a crisis?

I would hope that during a crisis I use listening skills to accomplish several objectives.  I would want to first listen to determine if there actually was a time-sensitive, urgent issue that needs to be addressed.  It is through listening that one accomplishes what I call “problem triage.”  Listening makes it possible to perform triage, just as in a medical emergency, to assess where should one’s attention be focused and what can be managed later.   Problems will always exist.  I define a problem as something you want more of or something you want less of.  A crisis means that the problem is time sensitive and urgent.  The problem needs to be managed quickly and efficiently.  Being a good listener and assessing the situation is a prerequisite to managing any crisis.

10. What is your listening legacy or what do you want it to be? If you have not achieved your listening legacy, how will you achieve it?

I have been interested in listening skills and teaching listening skills during my entire 45 year career in higher education. I remember playing the now classic recording of a speech by listening pioneer Dr. Ralph Nichols about listening skills in classes that I taught 45 years ago. I used to have a reel-to-reel tape of that lecture that I almost wore out. Then I had a cassette recording I would play. I had the privilege to interview Dr. Nichols before he passed away. I am pleased to say he was an excellent listener. I would like to be remembered as someone, like Dr. Nichols, who listened before responding. Who was skilled in communication triage—who used listening skills to assess a communication issue. Now rather than playing Dr. Nichols’ tape, I hope I can share new insights about listening research. We have learned much in the past 50 years since Dr. Nichols conducted his pioneering research. I hope that I am well-versed on the latest listening research and research-based skills so that I can help my students be better listeners.

To me, the most important part of an obituary is not the awards won or accolades received from one’s professional career. What is important is the legacy we leave for those who knew us best, our family. I have been married more than 45 years and have two wonderful sons and they are both married and I have one granddaughter. I would like them to remember me as one who took the time to listen to them. It is important to spend time with others. But if that time was spent being message-centered or receiver-centered then communication is less effective. Communication that is audience-centered, listener-centered is the best kind of communication. The primary means of being audience- or listener-centered is listening. I would like to be remembered as someone who took time to focus on the needs of others. I would like to be remembered with these five words: He was a good listener.

[1] K. W. Hawkins and B. P. Fullion, “Perceived Communication Skill Needs for Work Groups,” Communication Research Reports 16 (1999): 167–174.

[2] K. Kristensson, I. J. Jonsdottir and S. K. Snorrason, “Employees’ Perceptions of Supervisors’ Listening Skills and Their Work-Related Quality of Life,” Communication Reports 32 (2019): 137-147.

[3]T. Brown, M. Yu and J. Etherington, “Are Listening and Interpersonal Communication Skills Predictive of Professionalism in Undergraduate Occupational Therapy Students?” Health Professions Education 30(2020): 1-14; J. Brownell, “Perceptions of Effective Listeners: A Management Study,” Journal of Business Communication (Fall 1990): 401–415; D. A. Romig, Side by Side Leadership (Austin, TX: Bard, 2001).

[4] S. K. Maben and C. C. Gearhart, “Organizational Social Media Accounts: Moving Toward Listening Competency,” International Journal of Listening 32 (2019): 101-114

[5] K. R. Meyer and S. K. Hunt, “The Lost Art of Lecturing: Cultivating Student Listening and Notetaking,” Communication Education  66 (2017): 239-241.

[6] R. Bommelje, J. M. Houston, and R. Smither, “Personality Characteristics of Effective Listeners: A Five Factor Perspective,” International Journal of Listening 17 (2003): 32–46.

[7] M. S. Conaway, “Listening: Learning Tool and Retention Agent,” in Improving Reading and Study Skills, edited by A. S. Algier and K. W. Algier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996): 51–63.

[8] For a review of how listening is discussed in public speaking textbooks, see W. C. Adams and E. S. Cox, “The Teaching of Listening as an Integral Part of an Oral Activity: An Examination of Public-Speaking Texts,” International Journal of Listening 24.2 (2010): 89–105.

[9]J. Hackenbracht and K. Gasper, “I’m All Ears: The Need to Belong Motivates Listening to Emotional Disclosure,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013): 915–921; G. S. Bodie, C. C. Gearhart, J. P. Denham, and A. J. Vickery, “The Temporal Stability and Situational Contingency of Active-Empathic Listening,” Western Journal of Communication 77.2 (2013): 113–138.

[10]For a provocative discussion of the role of empathy and compassion in our interactions with others, see P. Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: ECCO/HarperCollins, 2016).

[11] K. L. Geiman and J. O. Greene, “Listening and Experiences of Interpersonal Transendence,” Communication Studies 70 (2019): 114.

[12]C. Jacobs and D. Coghlan, “Sound of Silence: On Listening in Organizational Learning,” Human Relations 58.1 (2005):115–138.

[13]P. Skaldeman, “Converging or Diverging Views of Self and Other: Judgment of Relationship Quality in Married and Divorced Couples,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 44 (2006): 145–160.

[14]K. Wright, “Similarity, Network Conver-gence, and Availability of Emotional Support as Predictors of Strong-Tie/Weak-Tie Support Network Preference on Facebook,” Southern Communication Journal 77, no. 5 (2012): 389–402; M. Scott and S. Sale, “Consumers Use Smartphones for 195 Minutes Per Day, But Spend Only 25% of that Time on Communications,” Analysys Mason (May 2014), www .analysysmason.com/About-Us/News/Insight/ consumers-smartphone-usag

Our Executive Editor, Dr Rebecca Babcock, interviewed Dr Jefferson Senese, President, St Leo University, one of the top universities in Central Florida.

1. What type of leader do you believe yourself to be and how does that leadership style effect your listening?

 I believe I am more in the listening leader quadrant than the others.  While I often bring ideas and ask for results as in the Driver quadrant, I listen to others, gather data and rely upon our team to help make decisions or empower them to make decisions.

Figure 1.  Leadership Archetypes by Shane Safir

2. Give me an example of your leadership style affecting your listening. Do you feel your listening was positively or negatively affected? Why or why not?

So for example, when I was appointed president, I asked the senior leadership team whether we should consider revising our value statements to move from 6 core values to 3 or 4 to better focus our efforts and context.  The team respectfully discussed this and then they suggested we survey the community.

In the end we found out that the values, while numerous, are clearly where the university community at large thinks we need to be.  So I moved on to other matters given that that is the sentiment of the community.

3. Listening is a very complex process. What aspects do you consider when you listen?
For instance environment, non-verbal, relationship, physiological, psychological, age, race, ethnicity, power, experiences, gender, etc.

Most of these and clearly, I believe listening is contextual.  In some contexts, I am expected to speak and not listen. In those contexts, I try to ask questions, refer to the work of others and recognize others. Watching nonverbal communication is very important and given the university has faculty and staff that are of a range of ages and experiences, it is important to think through communications and how we ask them to listen and how we listen to ourselves.

4. Do you engage in active listening? If so, how do you define active listening and what does it entail?

I certainly try to actively listen. I do this through repeating what I understand what people say. I ask if I understand correctly what their point is. I also give credit where credit is due and try to focus on others’ ideas.  I tend not to speak from behind a podium in public events which I am told suggests that when I ask questions, I am open to hearing.

5. Give me an example of when you listened actively and how you deconstructed a surface narrative.

For example, just this morning I was having coffee with a faculty member who suggested a colleague was interested in helping the university accomplish something. I sat with him for 20 minutes asking what that meant, how I should approach his colleague and the context of the situation.  I took the time, which I did not have, to sit and listen and not just talk at this faculty member.

6. What issues or problems could be solved if people were better listeners?

I believe people would indeed be happier if they listened to each other more! I believe part of the real problem in the world today is that everyone seems to be expressing themselves of social media with too little listening to the facts or thinking about listening to others.  Much of social media is hurtful and not good communications.  Too many in the social media crowd jumps to conclusions and does not listen enough.

Leave a Reply