Culture3 min read

The ultimate checklist for listening as an ally

Allies ask questions. Allies also shut up. Fortunately, there are a few more pointers out there for being a top-notch conversationalist.

As CEO Kevin Payne says, ally conversations are about “engaging to help”:

I think the first step to becoming an ally is to better understand the experiences women have and how they may be different from your own. Talk to some of your female colleagues in a curious and genuine way to find out how they see the work environment. Do they feel valued? Do they feel comfortable offering new ideas and speaking up? Do they see opportunities? If not, what obstacles do they see? Being an ally means you are more than moral support; it means you are engaging to help.

  Kevin Payne, CEO of Southern California Edison (SCE)

Here’s a checklist for being an ally that listens in conversations about topical issues, that invite vulnerability or get to the bottom of an incident or micromessage.

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📌 Take care in your approach

✅ Figure out which dominant groups you are a member of and think of the personal work you can do. In other words, for which topics and issues must you be an ally and focus on listening and raising the voices that have a bigger stake?

  • Let’s say a public figure made a racist statement against a faith group and you know it is awful. You might open the conversation, but let members of the group speak first (and more) to explain their reaction.

✅ Probe your self-interest. This is especially true when you find the urge to interrupt or centre yourself. Ask yourself, “is it better if I just keep listening rather than contribute verbally?”

✅ Build solidarity with other allies. You have to listen to fellow allies, too! Start in your sphere of influence. Find out why people care or don’t care about specific issues and what you could do to collaborate.

🔍 Audit as you go

✅ Signal that experiences and opinions are individual. When speaking about issues that affect whole groups, remind your conversation partner that you don’t expect them to speak for the entire group. Signal this simply by saying, “How does it feel for you?”, “What would you prefer?”.

✅ Close the praise gap. In group conversations (especially when you are leading or hold a position of power), take note of who you give more praise to. This includes microaffirmations, like eye contact, nodding, and small verbal interjections showing approval. Aim to give them evenly.

✅ Pay attention to the gap between intention and impact. Don’t accept yourself or anyone else excusing damaging things because they “didn’t mean to offend”. The aim is to understand the other person’s perspective, not to defend your innocence. Both sides should approach with curiosity and honesty.

😀 Actively listen

✅ Listen deeply to understand someone else’s perspective, especially when you disagree. Do not confuse understanding with agreement.

  • Try this playback technique: Oprah Winfrey is an interviewer that famously gets people to open up about deeply personal issues.One of her talents is that she summarises back to her interviewee what she has heard. She then leaves that summary there in the air.

    The interviewee can agree that she has got it right, can amend or append what she has just said. The important points are consolidated and the interviewee feels (and is) thoroughly heard.

    disclaimer: we have called it the playback technique! You might just remind yourself to, “Be Oprah”. Whatever works for you.

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✅ Work to close the intention-impact gap. After any sort of friction, persist to understand what happened and how it felt for all parties.

✅ Invite others to speak their truth. If “your truth” seems a bit cheesy, just say you want their perspective. Especially if you have a dominant voice, once you say your bit, make it clear you know it’s not the final word by asking for more!

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Our FAVOURITE question to ask so that you can listen…

✅ Ask how an individual would like you to deal with someone being a jerk. Especially if you have just seen someone be a jerk!

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Adapted from How to be a fluent ally to people that stutter, an illustrated guide by International Stuttering Awareness.

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Listening properly sounds like it should be simple and passive. And sometimes it is! But there are loads of tips for getting the most out of conversations and furthering your commitment to really understand another’s perspective.

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