When you begin a listening project, it is important not to have preconceived ideas about where it will lead and instead to allow the direction to emerge. Think of this process like a compass. The listening project will not tell you exactly where to go, but it will send you off in the right direction.
Recall that there are three foundational truths that are true in every community:
1) Everyone has a dream
2) Everyone has a gift
3) If you first connect people together around a shared dream, they will then invest their gifts.
The hardest part of this process is learning to listen deeply enough to discover that shared vision, a.k.a. the commUNITY Dream. One does this by listening without an agenda or a predefined plan of action. While this process is designed to be emergent it is also highly strategic.
Embrace works with our training and coaching clients to customize a Strengths Survey to discover the gifts and the key motivation for action—the dream for the community. Embrace has developed several versions of this survey for different contexts, but the core questions are all very similar. Here is a list of the surveys we have developed and the context for each type of survey.
1) Neighbor Strengths Survey: for community engagement in a geographically defined community
2) Parent Strengths Survey: for parental engagement in a school setting
3) Student Strengths Survey: for student engagement in a high school or college
4) Community Strengths Survey: for community participant engagement in a program
5) Resilience Survey: for community members after a season of trauma, such as COVID-19, a natural disaster, or chronic seasons of violence
All Embrace’s strengths surveys begin with a five-question structure. Questions 1, 4, and 5 are largely the same with only slight context or focus shifts. It is questions 2 and 3 that vary the most, especially with the resilience survey.
Question 1: How long have you been a member/parent/student of this neighborhood, school or community?
This question helps you understand how vested the community member is in their community, and their level of knowledge about the community. This question also helps you discover those long-time community members who can teach you the stories, the history, and reveal the cultural assets of the community. Longtime residents carry the collective memory of the community and understand better than most the sound of the genuine within the community.
Question 2: What do you like best about the community, school, or neighborhood? (Resilience-focused tool: What helped you survive or possibly thrive during the difficulties of this past season?)
This question starts with appreciative inquiry, focusing on what is working. This will help you discern both the interviewee’s overall opinion of the neighborhood and what they value, as well as the community assets. In the case of the resilience-focused tool, this question helps you understand the individual’s protective and restorative assets—those assets that help them to survive or thrive.
This question also helps determine whether or not the interviewee is likely to be an asset in the development effort. If you ask this question and the answer you receive is, “I hate this place, I can't wait to get out. There's nothing good about it,” then that person is not likely to be one of your initial key assets on the front end of a development effort. That does not mean that the person will not join in later when others are working toward change.
Question 3: If you could do anything to strengthen your neighborhood/ school/ community what would you do? (Resilience Question: If you could do anything to help others in your neighborhood/school/community thrive, what would you do?)
This question is the magic question. It is designed to reveal what the community members cares enough about to act upon. This is the “dream” question and responses to it become the key around which you organize your outcomes from the listening project. This is the most important question in this survey process, and it is important to listen deeply for the underlying issue—the heart of their dream, not the surface issue.
Pay really close attention to the wording in this question. If you could do anything to strengthen your community, what would you change? Again, this is not a needs assessment, nor is it about your organization doing something for the community. A word of caution: resist the urge to reword the question as, “If our organization could do anything to help your community, what should we do?” That is not helpful. That rewording undermines the entire process because you make the institution the focus of the conversation instead of on what the community member brings to the table as a citizen, not as a consumer.
Question 4: If others care about the same thing you care about, can we count on you to join in?
This will help you discern your respondents’ willingness to get involved. In my experience, 99.9 percent of people say yes to this question. This gives you permission to circle back throughout the project to let people know when others are naming the same “dream.” Question 4 establishes that this is an ongoing relationship and not a one-off conversation. Please note, this expectation goes both ways. If you do not follow up, you can destroy trust and make people feel used or unvalued. Toward the end of the listening project, you will want to invite all the interviewees to a meeting to reveal and discuss what the community cares about. If you have kept the interviewees up to date on the progress of the project, they will feel connected and want to join in. If they do not hear from you for several months, they are less likely to join in.
Question 5: Who else do you know who cares about what you care about?
This will help you identify other potential assets. People tend to connect when others with whom they already have a relationship get involved. Using natural relational ties will help you gain buy-in and build trust at a faster pace. If you approach someone who does not know you but you can say, “Your neighbor, Mrs. Jones, suggested we talk with you,” then you are far more likely to get them to participate in the conversation. If you work through the existing relational network into which you're invited and continually ask, “Who else cares about this?”, you can grow a movement.