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Stanford Social Innovation Review / Winter 2022

Deep Listening By Emily Kasriel

The full article available on the SSIR website or contact Emily Kasriel

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Developing Deep Listening is essential to creating understanding and the authentic relationships necessary for social change.


Most leaders in the social sector aspire to work collaboratively with the people they serve. To drive systems change, nonprofits and funders need to understand people who are different from them and include the perspectives of a diverse set of stakeholders in their decision- making processes. Such an approach can help leaders make sense of the world through understanding relationships and the complexity of systems. Those who invest in listening and participatory efforts tend to create more equitable practices, research suggests, including a stronger commitment to inclusion and a positive impact on participants and community members, who become more empowered to self-advocate or hold officials accountable.

In 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic and civil rights protests against racism created a greater awareness of the intersecting inequalities and power disparities between social-change leaders and their beneficiaries, philanthropists and the NGOs they support, and white people and people of color working within organizations. Traditionally, philanthropy and social entrepreneurship have operated from a top-down approach. Leaders across sectors have acknowledged that they need to learn to listen more effectively to connect with stakeholders and understand their needs.

“We know that the communities most proximate to the problems possess unique insight into the solutions,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said in his 2019 vision statement for philanthropy. “That is why ... we ought to ensure that the people affected by our work are guaranteed a voice in its design and implementation.”

Deep listening is foundational to understanding stakeholder and community needs. The approach—also referred to as active listening, reflective listening, or radical listening—is characterized by how the listener enters and engages in a conversation. Their curiosity, empathy, respect for the speaker, and self-awareness about their own beliefs and biases all influence their ability to listen deeply and connect authentically with the speaker, such that they can intuit the speaker’s emotions and true meaning of their words.

In this article, I explain the deep listening approach and consider the challenges of its practice. Drawing upon the experience of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, as well as my own research and practice, the parameters of this article encompass one-to-one listening...

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