Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.
Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.
What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?
Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.
According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:
I recently attended a meeting that went something like this:
Everyone came in, many of them rushing, a few looking at cell phones. They sat at the conference table, laptops popped open. The person who’d called the meeting looked around, said ‘I think we’re all here,’ immediately threw a spreadsheet up on the screen, and started going through a bunch of numbers.
The attendees (I was there as an observer) scrambled to keep up. . .then they started asking a ton of questions about the spreadsheet. They questioned assumptions, tried to solve for problems that hadn’t been directly mentioned, and asked for additional details. The meeting-caller became increasingly flustered as the gathering spiraled out of control.
After 45 minutes, time was up. Laptops collapsed and everyone left. No action items, no real resolution. I wasn’t even clear what the intention of the meeting had been.
It didn’t feel so great. The meeting-caller, who happened to be my client, looked at me: ‘Please tell me there’s a better way to do that.’
Master storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman breaks a storytelling performance into four sections:
The problems of poverty, disease, and environmental decay cannot be solved merely by the use of more and more scientific technology. Technological fixes usually turn out to be a jumble of procedures that have unpredictable consequences and are often in conflict with natural forces. Indeed, technological magic is not much better than primitive magic in dealing with the fundamental issues of human existence, and in addition, it is much more destructive.
–Rene Dubos, 1967
At a recent conference billed as an exploration of the intersection of Social Impact and Exponential Technologies, a prominent tech luminary spoke on the increasing incidence of depression and how technology will be essential to dealing with it.
She walked us through data showing that depression is projected to increase several-fold in the next decade. Other data laid out the developed world’s current capacity to treat depression. There was a clear and growing gap. We simply will not have the resources to handle the epidemic.
We must, the speaker said, find a way to increase our capacity to serve those grappling with depression. It’s not possible to train enough therapists in time to offer support. Fortunately, exponential technology, specifically adaptive intelligence, can help.
Currently, those working with depression have limited options for getting support. Almost all of them involve having to find and vet a therapist, go to therapy consistently, and/or get a prescription medication. With adaptive intelligence, help could be as close as an app on your phone.
The speaker walked us through a use case. Someone feels unmotivated, disconnected, and depressed. They log on to a secure (much emphasis was placed on ‘secure’) app and are greeted by an adaptive Artificial Intelligence that approximates warmth and curiosity. With a few questions customized to inspire reflection and sharing, the AI triages users.
Some people may only need a bit of space for reflection. For them, the AI provides the necessary level of support.
Others may require more intensive support. The AI detects this and links them to a trained therapist for a consultation.
This technology driven solution solves for the problem of capacity. Exponential technology saves the day.
I listened to the talk with a growing sense of dread and frustration in my gut.
Client: Nonprofit Finance Fund Advisory Services
Founded in 1980, Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) unlocks the potential of mission-driven organizations through tailored investments, strategic advice and accessible insights. NFF functions both as a CDFI Lender and a provider of advisory and consulting services and helps organizations connect money to mission effectively, supporting innovations such as growth capital campaigns, cross-sector economic recovery initiatives and impact investing.
At a broad level, NFF works towards a world where capital and expertise come together to create a more just and vibrant society.
A few months ago I attended a lovely event that honored a few local nonprofit organizations. The audience was fairly diverse. There were more than a few well-heeled folks in attendance.
In other words: the event presented a fantastic opportunity for these organizations to get in front of potential contributors and expand their community of support or at the very least raise their visibility.
All three organizations, two of which have decent sized budgets, whiffed. And all three representatives followed the same outline. It went a bit like this:
I could feel the room going cold as each person spoke. There was no sense of connection or humanity. Just a bunch of words, ideas, and generalities. And no one included a call to action.
As each presenter spoke, I found myself getting unreasonably frustrated. These were great organizations doing important work and they were coming across as boring and inconsequential. There is NO REASON that every single person speaking on behalf of a nonprofit shouldn’t be able to deliver a 3 to 5 minute talk that connects with an audience, communicates not just what the organization does, but also why it’s important, and calls the audience to action, even if it’s just to visit their website.
Here’s a proven structure anyone can use that’s been used for hundreds of years to rally people to action:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.