The Art of Listening

A development colleague recently relayed a story to me. She had invited a faculty member to join a prospect meeting, and as they sat down with the prospect, the professor immediately launched into a discussion of the initiative at hand.

After a few minutes, the prospect interjected and said, “I’m sorry if I seem particularly effusive today. My granddaughter was just in town with her fiancée, and we spent the time together hiking and catching up. It was wonderful.”

The professor paused, took a breath … and then picked up the spiel on his initiative right where he’d left off! Some serious coaching about getting to know our prospects occurred on the car ride back to campus.

What does this story have to do with those of us who think we know better? Our stories don’t matter as much as our prospects’ stories, and we forget that all the time.

We say that we know this. We talk about “story listening” and “asking strategic or probing questions.” But let’s be honest – how often do we talk on in meetings, doggedly committed to our talking points, to making the case, to wowing the prospect with just one more exciting ranking or award? This is no better than the professor’s mistake.

Our role is to assist donors realize their passions, dreams, and interests through meaningful giving. To do so we have to understand their passions, but also their concerns, what motivates them, their self-perception, and more. The only way to do that is to ask the right probing questions and listen.

The following techniques will help you make sure you’re not talking your way out of a meaningful donation, and more importantly, a meaningful relationship for our organizations:

  • When developing talking points for a prospect meeting, or a larger prospect strategy, ask yourself, “What don’t I know?” Identify the gaps in your knowledge, and then write out the questions you need to ask. Draft your meeting talking points around the story you need to hear, not data you need to deliver.
  • Practice asking questions that go beyond the surface. You can do this by reflecting after each prospect meeting – what did you learn about the prospect’s deepest interests and concerns, and what gaps still exist? And then ask yourself what questions you could have asked in the moment to forge a deeper understanding and connection. Begin to notice whether there are themes to the type of questions you wish you had asked.
  • Develop your own question-asking style. We are asking prospects to open up to us in very personal ways, and we should each have techniques to encourage this. How do you develop this kind of rapport? Some fundraisers share an aspect of their own personal story before asking a similar question of the prospect. Others may explain their curiosity – prefacing a deeper question about giving with an explanation such as “Can I ask more about that? There are so many great nonprofits in town, and I love learning how people choose where to share their generosity.”
  • Watch your prospects when you’re talking in a meeting, and be mindful of how they’re responding– are they engaged, nodding, enthusiastic? If so, stop and ask about what’s resonating. Or has your prospect leaned back, crossed his or her arms, started looking around or down rather than maintaining eye contact? If so – stop talking even more quickly! Give space to your prospect by stopping and saying “I don’t want to go on and on – what are your thoughts so far?”
  • Teach your faculty, leaders, physicians, and volunteers to listen. How often do we tell our allies that their role is to persuade, endorse, or explain – and how often do we tell them their role is to demonstrate curiosity and seek to understand our prospects?

In my recent Golden Rules blog, I recommended that we speak for only 25-30% of a prospect meeting, and that we help our prospect fill the rest of the conversation. By using the techniques above, you can help ensure that this conversation provides the type of deeper understanding that is foundational to the most effective strategies.

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