Listen First: Duke Service-Learning facilitates a conversation about authentic listening, leadership and learning

The concept of authentic listening is simple enough, but its actual practice is semi-radical. The good news is, almost anybody can learn to do it.

by Ruth Eckles

In order to learn with and from our communities in the deepest, most transformative sense of the word--"being with" as opposed to "doing for," "helping", "fixing," "saving," or "innovating"--authentic listening is not a nicety, it's a necessity. Without it, nothing can grow to its fullest, richest potential.

Truthfully, we could all use a little help, which is why David Malone, Director of Duke Service-Learning, facilitated a student-centered conversation entitled Listen First: A conversation about authentic listening, leadership, and learning with Dean Valerie AshbyMichael Ivory (T '18), Jayne Ifekwunigwe, Leo Ching, Ada Gregory, and Adam Hollowell. Together, they explored the challenges, questions and potential solutions for strengthening our capacity to listen with approximately 50 Duke undergraduates.

As the Dean of Arts & Sciences, Valerie Ashby knows a lot about listening. Ashby oversees Trinity’s extraordinary breadth: 80% of the undergraduates, 38 units (encompassing the Humanities, Arts & Sciences and Natural Sciences), 671 faculty and 300 staff.

“People always ask me ‘What do you do every day?’ And I tell them ‘Everything. But I do one thing at a time.’ What I do every day--and literally this is the job--is about listening, learning and leading a community,” she says.
"All of you who are thinking about leadership, let me tell you, it is not that we know what we are doing, it is that we are willing to ask a lot of questions and listen and learn," said Ashby.

So how do you build authentic relationships with 600 plus faculty? Ashby says it's something she thinks about every day. Her strategy? Cultivate environments based on LACE (love, authenticity, courage, and empathy), start small, and branch out from there:

"There is no short cut to relationships. For me, I had to start with my 38 department chairs and program directors. We have a relationship and they trust me. I’m confident of that. They may not like everything I do, but they know I’ll tell them the truth and I’m going to listen.”

Once you build a relationship with smaller groups of people, Ashby says, it has a ripple effect, and those people then tell their peers about you. In the meantime, she continues on a quest (which she jokingly refers to as the "love tour") to get to know all of her faculty, one small group at a time:

"I have people over to my house for dinner probably 2 or 3 times a month, totally for this reason. They come in the door thinking we’re going to do work, while I am thinking ‘No I want you to see me as a regular human being with jeans and a t-shirt on, at my house.'"

"People don’t need to trust that I will do the job, they need to trust I will be a human being," says Ashby.

"L" is forLove

"The love of people is really critical," says Dean Ashby.

"I have 671 faculty who have varying opinions. Sometimes they are angry about things because they care a heck of a lot. But if I do not love them, just in principle, we are in trouble."

Listening is a loving act

Students paired up and took turns listening to each other in order to explore how it felt to be really listened to, noticing what elements were present that allowed them to feel that way. They also observed how it felt to truly listen and examined the ways in which it felt different than just "hearing".

"A" is for Authenticity

"It is good to let everybody show up as themselves. Everybody. All of us. Because we are better for that--better decision-making, better everything, when you allow space for everybody to show up just like they are." -Dean Ashby
Authenticity often requires vulnerability: "Where do you find the abilities or the skills to allow yourself to be vulnerable in these conversations and be willing to make mistakes and disagree, and how do you come to a mutual agreement with the other person where you allow that vulnerability and room for error?" asked one student.

Authenticity takes time and trust--and a community of people that will allow you the grace to grow and develop:

"We are so quick to judge, to assume, and ascribe intent, that we won’t even hear out the other person to understand where they’re coming from or to give them the grace to learn. We really need to extend a lot more grace." -Ada Gregory

"C" is for Courage

"I think there is courage in listening. Because I may have to hear something that I might not want to hear. And then I have to sit with that instead of fighting. It takes courage to actually say ‘You know what? You just taught me something. I am going to do that differently.’" --Dean Ashby
Truth: It can be difficult to find the courage to be vulnerable in Duke's dizzyingly busy, achievement-focused culture.
The courage to fail: "There’s the large scale idea of what higher education is for, and then there’s the individual humans that need to wake up every day and feel like they can make a difference, while also being allowed the space to fail and attempt new things without being absolutely 100 percent confident of the outcome," said one student.

When Michael Ivory (T'18) first arrived at Duke, he thought he had to be perfect. The pressure he put on himself to succeed, combined with not knowing how to reach out for help, led to a serious bout of depression:

"One of the things about Duke is that we have this facade of effortless perfection. We constantly have to maintain the image that we always know what we’re doing and that it’s always going to have the right outcome. And that’s just not true. Like at all."
The courage to ask for help: "If you could draw a line to represent the arc of my career at Duke, it’s like half V, half U. There was a very sharp decline. I got to the halfway point and then slowly but surely, I got back on the uptake," says Michael Ivory.

Eventually, with the help of a therapist, his support network at Duke, and the "healing power of vulnerability", Ivory managed to pull out of the hole he was in. Ever since, vulnerability has played a key role in his leadership style:

"When we’re doing the work of vulnerability," he says, "that is where community is built--in the trenches, in the ugliness, not so much in the beautiful parts."

The courage to reveal our true selves: Jayne Ifekwunigwe referenced Erving Goffman's “Impression Management” which compares social interactions to actors on the stage. "You have what happens on the front stage, and then you have what happens backstage. Another way of translating vulnerability is our willingness--warts and all--to let people backstage. Feeling the fear of what people might think if we reveal our true selves and being that true self anyway," she says.

"Courage is an ancient virtue," says Adam Holloway.

"It strikes me that the other three (love, authenticity, and empathy) are particularly coded as feminine in our contemporary context. To which I would say that the cultural forces that drive me not to listen very well are traditionally masculine."

"E" is for Empathy

"Authenticity, vulnerability and empathy are acts that we take with ourselves as much as we take with each other," says Michael Ivory.

"I think that what we want out of civility we actually get from empathy," says Michael Ivory. "If you recognize the humanity of yourself and recognize how that humanity is affected and shaped by the society around you, you can better address the humanity of another person. Civility causes you to actually sever yourself from humanity because we think there are these objective rules of engagement that don’t have anything to do with who we are as people. And that’s harmful--both to the speaker and to the listener."

Authentic listening begins with us:

"The process of meaningful change most often begins by looking internally and “checking oneself” as opposed to pointing the finger at others," says David Malone. "So instead of saying "you aren’t listening” ask yourself instead how well YOU are listening."

Final Thoughts:

  • Start small, build trust: Practice developing relationships and exploring authenticity in smaller spaces before branching out to larger ones.
  • Develop the courage to listen: Practice the skill of listening and waiting. Experiment with waiting a beat or two before responding. Reframe the "awkward pause" as a courageous act that allows you to learn something new.
  • Reframe listening as an act of care rather than a duty. Think of it as a mindfulness practice.
  • Cultivate a somatic experience of listening. Experiment with listening with your entire body, not just your brain. What does it feel like to listen? Or to be listened to? Focus on pausing, slowing down, and relaxing your body while you listen or speak, and notice if it changes the quality of your interactions.
  • Focus on empathy as a way of experiencing our shared humanity as opposed to following prescribed rules of engagement (civility).
  • Practice vulnerability as a leadership style: "Our vulnerability literally creates space for other people to exist and be," says Michael Ivory. "Vulnerability ushers in the healing of others, the growth of your peers."
  • Give people the grace and space to learn, grow and develop. Don't rush to judgement. Allow people to make mistakes and learn from them. It doesn't mean you don't hold them accountable if they cross a line, but practice gentleness in the process (with yourself and others).

Photos by Ruth Eckles & Sierra Cleveland

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