Last month, the Fort Worth Report invited us, two TCU researchers, to envision a session on listening as part of this publication’s Candid Conversations. We were eager to emphasize listening as an important tool for relationship-building, problem-solving, and even reconciliation.

For three years, we have worked on a small research team to study listening, especially related to cities and how they focus on better engagement with all residents.

The main focus of this work centers the voices of Black stakeholders. This became especially important within the context of our Fort Worth community and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson. Why didn’t the city listen better and take action after the Race and Culture Task Force made recommendations in 2018? Could changes in policing and other city responsibilities have saved her life?

This research in 2020 confirmed what many of us may have suspected. The Black stakeholders from Fort Worth whom we interviewed felt left out, ignored, and actively blocked from giving input.

One told us that for Fort Worth “to build trust, they must address safety and quality of life issues that are making our city less livable for certain members of the community than others.”

We also learned a lot from community members at the listening session on Jan. 13 at TCU. Here’s a sample of feedback from participants:

  • “We have to create listening opportunities for our constituents and be held accountable for making appropriate changes.”
  • “Leaders should be listening to citizens on a regular basis.”
  • It’s important to recognize “which voices are heard and which aren’t in different settings.”
  • “Listening is not the problem. Action is.”

That last comment matches the voices of local Black stakeholders we interviewed in 2020. Where’s the action after the listening happens?

This finding — that listening seems real only when followed by action — fits the types of listening we studied.

The first type of listening we studied is called empathetic or compassionate listening. While cities certainly need to use empathy when listening, city officials can’t offer compassion and then turn back to business as usual. Real compassion means action, so empathy doesn’t have to be enacted over and over again.

The second type of listening we studied might be called stonewall listening. This is a kind of “checked-out” listening that occurs when officials think they’ve already heard it all before.

In these cases, city officials may simply file what they hear into familiar boxes. Decisions have been made, in other words, and listening occurs only as listening theater or as window dressing.

We have named a third type “no-agenda listening.” This type of listening is the summit of true engagement. It’s hard to reach, but so necessary for our world today.

No-agenda listening means we lay down our power and control. We are still. We are open.

It means city officials must take time away from their most precious ideas and activities to embark on a journey to a place or issue they know nothing about. This listening enlightens us on the circumstances and perspectives of others. Coupled with the responsibility of public officials, no-agenda listening means being accountable and seeking solutions to ensure the well-being of all residents.
This third category is certainly an ideal. It will be hard to achieve in all circumstances. Yet no-agenda listening is an important skill that requires practice and should serve as a cornerstone of true servant leadership.

It means city and other government officials should intentionally reach out to activist groups for partnerships.

Groups such as United Fort Worth, Community Frontline, the Ministers Justice Coalition of Texas — and many more, especially neighborhood groups in underserved areas of Fort Worth — deserve a consistent place at the community table with our city, our county, and our school district leadership. We can’t simply listen to the easiest or most powerful voices. These groups deserve respect as they actively work to make our community better and to care for residents’ well-being.

Municipal government should also designate a “listener-in-chief.” This means that someone with authority collects input from many sources, sees patterns and community-driven solutions, and makes sure action occurs. A listener-in-chief provides accountability within an organization’s listening system, and these responsibilities are formally embedded in job descriptions to ensure accountability.

Lastly, cities must offer many more kinds of engagement and listening sessions. Virtual sessions, informal coffee gatherings, and surveys polling residents should be the norm, not the exception. Events for elites should be transformed into free community forums to share the “state of the city.”

Listening, truly listening, should stop us in our tracks. After listening, we should make changes. Take action. For that’s the only way stakeholders will truly feel heard.

TCU will host a free session via Zoom on how to train community listeners at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24. We will record the session and share it with any registrant who is not able to attend in person. To register, please use this link.

Jacqueline Lambiase, Ph.D., and Ashley English, Ph.D., teach in TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. With Julie O’Neil, Ph.D., they publish research on organizational listening.

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