How to Listen

When you meet someone, they’re only assessing you for two things: are you friendly? And are you powerful?

The brain will decide on that gut-level feeling instantly and then rationalize it later.

To establish both friendliness and power, the best fundraisers have several tricks up their sleeves. Today I’ll be talking about friendliness - specifically about a tool that demonstrates friendliness almost instantly: deep listening.

Deep listening starts by examining a simple ratio: How much are you speaking, and how much are you silent? This is called listening balance, and there’s a simple rule of thumb — at least 80% of your time as a fundraiser should be spent listening to your prospect. 

Popular wisdom would suggest that fundraisers are always pitching, but the opposite is usually true. The best fundraisers are never pitching because they’re too busy looking for connection points.

Scenario: You’re a fundraiser for the Sierra Club. You’ve just said hello to the prospect and asked them, “how was your week?”

The prospect says, “It was great, thanks. Just got back from taking the kids to the lake. How was yours?”

Amateurs will see this conversation as casual banter before they get to the good stuff. But they’re wrong — this is already the good stuff.

Look at what we learned:

-The prospect has younger children who aren’t out of the house yet. Potentially a pathway to a discussion about the future of the planet.

-The prospect spends time by the water. Potentially a path towards an environmental conversation about the water, or the ecology around the lake.

-Do they have a boat? That’s an indicator of wealth. Was this their own lake house? Or maybe they just rented a weekend cabin? Perhaps it’s family land that they inherited. Uncovering this will give you clues about gift size.

-Which lake? I grew up by Lake Lanier. It’s nice, but it’s a far cry from George Clooney’s house in Lake Como, Italy. Again, a wealth indicator.

Active, engaged listening doesn’t come naturally. If you’re like me, you spend most of your time thinking about what to say next. But when you listen carefully, you uncover the hidden needs of your donor. 

Needs are best described as verbs. And the more abstract and profound those needs, the better:

To protect his children.

To achieve success at work.

To build a legacy for the next generation.

Try this with your family. Your teenage daughter wants to go to the mall? She’s hoping to experience freedom. She’s hoping her friends validate her. Your spouse is annoyed because you spent too much money? He wants you to make him feel secure.  Verbs.

The best fundraisers can (with 90% consistency) get to needs within a 30-minute conversation. And 24 of those minutes should be the donor talking.

But you can’t fake it. To do this well requires you to be genuinely interested in the other person. You have to practice developing deep curiosity, just as if you were reading a fascinating book. 

People are endlessly fascinating, and deep listening will endear you to them.

That’s where the friendliness comes in. It’s more than just a smile -- friendliness is your ability to fall in love at first sight and find connections in the most mundane subjects. And like most things, it takes practice.

Thanks for reading!

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Deepest gratitude to my editors: Asad Badruddin, Sara Campbell, Stew Fortier, and David Vargas.