by Terry Linhart

Walmart has the Christmas decorations up and the shopping season is well into gear, weeks before trick-or-treating children show up on our doorsteps. This means that Christmas music is just around the corner (well, except for the few who are already privately playing it at home) and we’ll hear those one or two songs that quickly become annoying (you know which ones I mean).

One of the better popular songs is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Written in the early 60s, it quickly rose to popularity when Bing Crosby sang it on a Bob Hope Christmas special and it then quickly became part of the American Christmas repertoire. The song asks a profound question – are we able to understand and recognize what the author does (check out the video of Jean Watson’s version with the great Phil Keaggy).

Ironically, the reason the song was created is lost on today’s listeners, illustrating that most of us often don’t know or also hear what others hear. The song was written less as a song for Christmas and more as a plea for peace during the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis. The song certainly has Christmas themes, referencing the star, the shepherds, the Child, and the gifts of the wise men. However, the motive for the song was a plea for peace in a time of political and military unrest. And, of course, humanity didn’t listen as war after war (and threats of war) have happened ever since.

Do We Hear What Others Hear?

Imagine five of us listened to a person on the street entertaining with a dramatic routine or sharing (or yelling even) some message of peace, political necessity, or spiritual conviction. Imagine we then moved into the local coffee shop to share what we heard. There would be great unanimity on the main points, but it’s likely that some heard things others missed. It’s even more likely that if we discussed the implications (what we need to do next), we’d get a more varied set of responses. Some would be indifferent. Some would be angry. Some would just laugh at something and would have completely missed the speaker’s whole reason for being out on the street while others in our imaginary group might have been convicted by the message.

To illustrate the problem further, consider how many marriages you know that have members who feel like their spouse really listens and understands them well? Even in relationships where we’ve spent the most energy and the most time to make sure it’s the “right” one, communication problems exist.

See, we don’t listen as well as we think we do. In our busy multi-tasking world, where we’re drowning in social media “noise” and often maintain blistering work pace each week, it’s even worse. People are communicating meaning (directly or indirectly) every day in the business or nonprofit work. But few are really hearing the meaning in what they’re communicating. Over time, this disconnect in the workplace or in organizations leads to poorer performance, misaligned teams, lack of clear direction, and more. Suddenly, teams or boards find themselves stuck or unable to answer some larger questions.

That’s where we step in.

The Arbor Distinctive

I’ve tried to write a short description of our approach to listening. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Arbor Research Group goes into the field to listen well and help organizations and mission-driven businesses understand their people, their context, and their opportunities. Arbor does that through its signature “Layer System” that is managed by experts in research and leadership.

I’m just so very proud of our team of experts and their ability to skill and track record of listening well. The way they enter into a new context with each project and care for the people they’re interviewing, well, It’s likely the most beneficial thing for our clients. In addition to the custom research designs, the survey software, and the sophisticated data analysis, I think the best thing we do is sit across the table from people and we listen; we work hard to hear what they know, do, and feel.

Most of our clients have told me that the research process we took them through was as valuable as the findings and recommendations. We assist leaders with a listening process that not only allows everyone to be heard by a trained leader and researcher, but the way we listen allows people to embrace the process and relish the opportunity to contribute to the project’s purpose. Most people leave interviews saying, “Hey, that wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

Though it makes us laugh, we take that as a compliment.

Not only do we allow everyone to be heard, but we make sure that we hear the meaning as they intended. Have you ever been a part of an interview or survey and left thinking, “They really didn’t listen to me?” I had that happen twice lately:

I was interviewed by a financial stewardship consultant (it was an obscure company out East somewhere) since I was identified as a key potential donor. That was my first indicator that he hadn’t done his research. He led me through a series of 8-10 questions. I started laughing in the middle of the interview because the questions were identical to the questions other agencies used and I knew them by heart. But he couldn’t pick up on my response because he rarely looked at me as he filled out his sheet of paper. Even after 40 minutes, he never learned that I ran a large research company or what my giving potential could be. I was just a data point in this consultant’s process; he completely missed the point. And the data he was handing in wasn’t very good data.

You have to listen well to get the best data.

My second moment came when another organization I know well hired an outside agency to come in to help us with branding. The goal was to develop a theme (with a new color scheme, of course) that captured the essence of our mission and could become our brand.

They visited on-site for less than 48 hours (over 250 people worked for that company). That was the first problem. Then, in their focus groups, the questions were too open-ended for such a short visit. It was as if they hadn’t done any advance work or preparation before arriving on-location and had pulled questions from a “big book” of consultant questions. So, the data they thought they were getting wasn’t the data being shared and the range of understanding was limited to 20% of the company. They ended up recommending a brand that caused a lot of confusion and wasn’t in use within four years.

When consultants from Arbor Research Group go into the field, we want to make sure we’re hearing well. In addition to statistical work, when our consultants conduct qualitative work, it’s systematic and accurate. That’s why each project usually has these distinctive elements in its design:

  1. A comprehensive review of the research on the topic.
  2. At least two on-site visits.
  3. Use of two expert researchers to overcome bias and potential misinterpretation.
  4. A custom design that uses three different layers of methods for collecting the necessary data for the client’s needs.
  5. When finished, holding a summit meeting with leadership to help translate the findings into the organizational culture and climate.

When we give a client a report with recommendations and a ready-to-go presentation, we want them to put it to immediate use.

People Make Up Your Difference

When I describe what we do to people with our fieldwork on-site, their response is often “I don’t know anyone else who does that.” It may be true because I haven’t discovered such a group either and I’ve been doing this since 1998. We not only strap on our Arbor Research Group backpacks and board planes to get face-to-face with others, but the way we do our work with care and wisdom leaves those we interview thinking that we’re part of the organization versus being an outside agency. And, I still think this is the key indicator of the quality of our work to-date: We’ve been re-hired by each of our clients for follow-up work. Sometimes more than once.

If you asked our clients if they felt “heard” and received a process and product that helped them take their best next step forward, they would each say, “Yes.” If you asked them if we help them hear some new and surprising things that have shed light on some perplexing problems, they would also agree. It’s what we do. And I think our consultants do it better than anybody.

If your group, business, church, or organization is asking a perplexing question, looking at an opportunity or obstacle, or in need of help with a workplace situation, we’d love to listen to you about how we might be able to help. Drop us an Email and we can set up a time for a phone call within 48 hours.