How Becoming a Better Listener Will Make You a Better Fundraiser

Listening Skills

Let me ask you a question: Do you think you’re a good listener?

Take some time to really think about your answer. And be honest with yourself.

Because chances are, you’re not as good a listener as you believe yourself to be. In fact, if you ask your peers or significant other about the quality of your listening skills, the response may not be as flattering as you’d hoped.

Don’t despair, though. Despite our best intentions, most of us are actually pretty lousy at listening. We listen only with our ego — by which I mean we’re busy evaluating the speaker’s words for mistakes and gaps in logic; or getting defensive; getting judgmental; jumping to conclusions; or focusing on our rebuttal, rather than on the substance of the dialogue.

Listen Up

Good listening skills will help you in all areas of your life: at work, at home, in a relationship — even when you’re buying a new car.

But as a major gifts officer, your ability to listen is paramount to your success whether you want to become the next CEO or relate to donors. Donors need to feel respected, appreciated, and heard. None of those goals can be achieved if you just sit there silently nodding, or worse, cut them off to respond with your own agenda.

Instead, good listening requires a two-way dialogue. It’s not just silently listening, but an active dialogue — albeit one in which you listen more than you speak. The speaker must feel like you’re there to support them — even if there are issues or differences that need to be ironed out.

And forget most of the stuff you learned about being an “active” listener — remembering to nod your head, lean in, and say “uh huh” every once in a while. We’ve become so intent on showing people that we’re paying attention by going through the motions that we forget to actually pay attention! If you’re truly listening, the speaker will know it.

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Can You Hear That?

It’s the sound of your endowment growing when your donors feel heard. So, how does one listen well? I’m still learning (just ask my very patient wife!), but the experts generally agree on a few things.

  • Ask good, relevant questions. This tells the speaker that you not only heard them, but that you want more And you don’t need to think hard for this. Often, it’s enough to just repeat the last few words the speaker said while raising the inflection in your voice to turn it into a question. For instance,

Speaker: “My husband always said that someday, we’d be part of finding the cure. That had been his dream since childhood.”

Listener: “His dream since childhood?”

Speaker: “Yes, ever since he lost his favorite uncle to cancer.”

Believe it or not, this form of simple repetition is a technique the FBI uses when interviewing suspects or talking with kidnappers. Former agent Chris Voss teaches a MasterClass on it as part of a larger communications course — and it works wonders. The beauty of it is multi-faceted: To use it effectively, you must be listening. Plus, it’s a subtle, psychological technique that encourages the speaker to add more details to their story!

  • Make suggestions. This technique requires some discretion. Sometimes, a speaker simply wants someone to listen — not try to solve a problem or offer insights. That means listening quietly and waiting for the speaker to give you some kind of clue if they want your input — like, “Well, what do you think?” Other times, though, the speaker might be bouncing ideas off of you. I read somewhere that your job is to act like a trampoline — adding energy, height, and clarity to their thinking with your suggestions.
  • Be empathetic. For this, you need to tune in to the speaker’s emotions surrounding their topic. Your job is to be supportive, nonjudgmental, and validate those emotions. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with them, or even feel them yourself; it simply means you acknowledge the speaker’s feelings as real. 
  • Maintain Eye Contact: Look the speaker in the eye. This forces you to pay attention, and also shows the speaker that you’re focused on their words. You don’t need to stare fixedly — it’s OK to look away now and then. But do be attentive and engaging. 
  • Don’t fidget: If you’re squirming in your seat, tapping a pencil, or doodling, you’re going to look bored. That’s a sure way to tell the speaker they don’t matter. 
  • Look for Non-Verbal Cues: Pay attention to facial expressions, posture, and hand gestures. This helps you go beyond the speaker’s words and gain a deeper understanding of what’s being communicated.
  • Leave pre-conceived notions at the door: Assumptions, anxiety and anger are all enemies to good listening. If you don’t think you can overcome your personal biases, prejudices, or emotions, save the conversation for another day — or send a different fundraiser.
  • Try to picture what the speaker is communicating. Let your mind form pictures to go with the information being communicated. This will help you remember and understand it.

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Easy Listening

Good listening skills are essential to fundraising success, no matter whether you’re pursing annual, planned, or major gifts. Luckily, they’re not hard to learn (or re-learn, as it were). They just take awareness and practice.

And I promise you, once you’ve mastered those skills, you’ll see a world of difference. You’ll close on more and bigger gifts; climb the success ladder more quickly; enjoy immense time management skills; and acquire much better relationships and outcomes in your personal and professional life.

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All you need to do is listen.

Make sharpening your listening skills part of your 6-month plan to change your life.

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