3 Ways Empathic Listening Can Improve Your City’s Services

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Regardless of where you sit within a municipality, be it on the frontlines or in the City Manager’s office, you will inevitably find yourself in a position of responding to human needs. Isn’t that what public service is all about? Isn’t this what we signed up for?

Of course, it is not always easy to fully understand the breadth and depth of a problem our colleagues or constituents are facing. Whether you’re going through a strategic planning process, coming up with your annual budget, or managing organizational change, human needs, motivations and behaviors can be hidden and unclear, but they ultimately drive the outcomes you are seeking 

At CivicMakers, our approach to improving the delivery of public services involves human-centered design–a repeatable, creative, collaborative problem-solving methodology that prioritizes the input of diverse stakeholders in co-designing solutions. We help our municipal clients apply this methodology to improve programs and services from the perspectives of those who are served. A handy catchphrase for this approach is  “designing with, not for.”

The first phase of human-centered design is always empathy—we need to empathize with our colleagues and constituents in order to view the problem we are trying to address from their unique context. To do this, we gather data (human input) by way of active and empathic listening. 

We believe that anyone can develop the ability to listen actively and empathically, and that this skill in the workplace can have dramatic effects. Here are three major benefits we’ve seen to learning and using empathic listening:

It can help you recognize your own bias and blindspots!

Empathic Listening does not involve sympathy, advice or evaluation. It is a practice that seeks first to understand, to truly understand, the feelings, motivations and behaviors of others. This means creating a space where the speaker is not interrupted, where the listener resists the urge to formulate a response, resists the urge to connect the experience of the speaker to their own experiences. 

As humans, we naturally look for connection. The mirror neurons in our brains strive to find connections to others, which is what makes us social creatures.

When practicing empathic listening, however, we are invited to suspend that natural inclination; we are asked to take in what the speaker is saying as objective data. It’s really hard to do this, but when we filter that data through the lens of our own experience, we corrupt that data. Then we aren’t able to use it in a meaningful way to help solve problems.

In practicing empathic listening, you will find that if you create the space for someone to speak freely—without interruption or judgment—they are often able to diagnose and prescribe a solution to their own problem.

This can happen without you even saying anything, and relieves a lot of pressure, especially in the context of municipal management, to be the sole problem-solver. 

Here’s an example. We helped a project team comprised primarily of technologists practice empathic listening by taking them “out in the field” to learn from potential beneficiaries of the service they were designing. We stood outside a public library for an hour and listened to people we met there. The team learned that the problem they were trying to solve was targeting the wrong stakeholder group, so they went back and iterated on their design with this new insight.

It can help you build trust, with your colleagues AND with your community

Imagine, just for a moment, that empathic listening happened at your next community meeting, town hall or all-hands department meeting. We relegate public commenting to anywhere between 2-3 minutes. We do not often create space in department meetings for all voices to be heard. 

What if our colleagues and constituents had the opportunity to be heard—to be understood—in a non-judgmental or hierarchical setting. The mutual understanding and trust that we have seen play out in reimaginations of these “typical” convenings has been astounding. 

For example, we helped the City of Santa Rosa’s Community Advisory Board unite the diverse perspectives of its members—from underserved migrant farmers to affluent retirees. We co-created a Strategic Roadmap for their Board by training them to use empathic listening and to abandon the idea that their collaboration is relegated only to municipal protocol. The result has led to more trust between community members and with the City.

You can use it anywhere in your life!

The beauty of learning and building this skill is it can extend to other parts of your life. “Judi is just too good of a listener,” said no one ever. Being a good listener can not only help you be a better manager, City Council member, or public works professional, it can also help you be a better friend, mentor, partner, parent, etc. 

It is a skill that takes continual practice, much like meditation and mindfulness. I like to practice this skill in very crowded contexts, with lots of external distractions, like networking events or in loud restaurants. When I’m listening and my mind starts to wander, I remind myself to come back and be fully present with whomever is sharing their experience with me. I am able to see a difference in how the speaker feels, through their body language and tone of voice. 

As you can see, I’m a big believer in active and empathic listening. If you want to learn more about how empathic listening, human-centered design can help you build a better, more responsive City, please join me for my session at the 2019 NLC City Summit in San Antonio, TX, CivicMakers: Empathic and Active Listening, Thursday, November 21 8:30am–12:15pm!

Judi-Web-Headshot-200x200About the author: As Co-founder and Chief Impact Officer of Civic Makers, Judi brings over 10 years of experience in applied innovation methodologies with social enterprises, nonprofits, and local governments to the practice. Her work is grounded in multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approaches with a lens toward equity and inclusion. She has managed change initiatives for large, medium and small organizations; facilitated a variety of convenings for public and private sector clients; and led the development of Public Impact Design.