Friday, October 25, 2013

Emergence: listening from an evaluators perspective

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association and wrote about my experience earlier this week. One thing I wanted to explore more fully was the workshop on listening skills that I participated in as a pre-conference event. Although focused on listening in an interview and evaluation context, the materials and exercises were broadly applicable for anybody with a strong interest in strengthening their listening abilities. Given my interests in the listening side of science communication, it was right up my alley.

The workshop was co-facilitated by a licensed, practicing psychotherapist and a professional evaluator. I don't want to give a precise accounting of the workshop, but just to talk about a couple of the generalities. First, the two facilitators came at the topic from different perspectives, which was purposeful - the idea was to look at convergences from varied approaches. One was the lens of something called the Virtues Project, which I was not familiar with. Much of it was around the idea that it's important to recognize what you as a listener bring to the table - basically your biases, in their terminology - and how you can work with focus, curiosity, and open-mindedness to bring out the wisdom in the person that you are listening to. We also talked a lot about the importance of non-verbal communication, which is another topic I'd like to explore in subsequent post.

The discussion from this framework focused a lot on the concept of "companioning" - being able to sit in reflective silence with another person and to practice compassion and effective mirroring while listening. We talked a lot about asking open-ended questions that allow for information to emerge rather than to be forced out. In practice that might look a whole lot like asking "what" instead of "why". There is much more out there on the process of asking good questions that I won't get into here, but which I do find very useful, and again, will explore further in another post.

The second facilitator approached listening from a psychotherapeutic perspective, something I am quite familiar with. Her framework was "motivational interviewing," which comes from addiction treatment. In really general terms, early work with addicts came at treatment from a "breaking down their denial" approach, meaning that people were sort of battered by the "truth" of what they were doing to themselves and confronted by the "facts" of how bad their situation was. This, of course, didn't work super well (and may have some lessons for taking a more psychotherapeutic approach to thinking about "denialism" when it comes to environmental issues). As a result, one counter-idea that emerged was to focus more on working *with* an addict by minimizing the expert/addict dichotomy and helping addicts to find their own motivations for healing. It proved to be a big paradigm shift in addiction treatment.

One of the interesting things that arose from this example was whether the very act of approaching interviewing and evaluation from an expert position stirs up resistance (or ambivalence, in itself a form of resistance). Approaching evaluation from more of a partnership perspective really asks the person doing the interview to be curious about their own role in activating resistance, an idea that resonates with my own thinking at this point about my work on environmental issues.

The biggest take away for me from the workshop was that what we were really talking about was working with people to allow for their inner wisdom, and our own, to emerge. My favorite nugget from the workshop was the statement "evoke, don't educate."

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