Shh…Be Quiet and Listen

If there’s one thing I’m hearing in sessions and social hours at NCFP’s 20th Anniversary Forum, it’s about how important it is in family philanthropy to listen.

It sounds obvious. We all know that listening is important, in philanthropy as in everyday life. Yet it seems something we all need to hear again and again—reminding ourselves that the difference between listening and not listening can change everything.

As someone who has been writing about and for family philanthropists for many years, I’ve made a career out of listening. That’s why I delighted to hear Ken Burns and Cokie Roberts talk about their own personal experiences with listening in the opening plenary The Power of Storytelling. Burns spoke about feeling most like student than when he is asking questions of others. “The key to asking the right questions is listening,” he said. “Listening and being quiet sometimes. Watching the subtle signs in the conversation, and being willing to bore down into unexpected areas.”

In the Art and Practice of Collaboration session today, Zander Grashow, Founder of GOODWOLF, said it in a different way: “If there’s one secret to a good partnership, collaboration, relationship, it’s this: be in dialogue, not monologue,” said Grashow. “Most of us spend our entire lives in monologue.”

Only when there is truly a dialogue can we be in authentic relationship with each other. And as Grashow said, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships. This rings true whether we are talking about the quality of our relationships with our grantee partners, our family members, our board, our staff, or the community we serve.

Listening isn’t only an outward process. It’s an inward process as well. What sticks with me from the Race, Equity, and Family Philanthropy panel last evening is that listening, too, requires a listening to ourselves, including our own inner voices that perhaps we’ve shushed over a lifetime. At this time of history, we’re all called to listen to those inner voices and be honest with ourselves—sometimes painfully so—about our own biases, our own privilege, our own history, our own responsibility.

“As foundations, we are in a one-up position. We have the money, we have the power, we have the privilege—and it’s up to us to try to address that imbalance,” said Kerrie Brown of the Hidden Leaf Foundation in the Bridging the Power Divide session.

How to begin to do that? By being present with partners, paying attention, and staying curious. “We’re not the experts. We’re all working in partnership, and that takes listening.” she said.

Listening isn’t about helping others, or allowing others to be heard—it’s about creating an equal ground, a spaciousness, as a first step in freeing us all. In the Bridging the Power Divide session, I heard an aboriginal quote that captures this spirit perfectly:

“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.”

As we all continue our work together in family philanthropy, let us listen well, listen more, listen better.