Why Listening Matters

Why Listening Matters

In the policy arena, impact assessments – a set of procedures for understanding direct and indirect outcomes of proposed legislation – drive political decisions. In the non-profit world, quantitative measures of organizational reach proliferate. And businesses institute data-driven decision-making in as many areas as possible. One thing is clear; across sector and function, organizations are using a variety of tools to try to measure their impact, using the collected data to modify approaches and deepen impact.

Often lost in the conversation about what tools, systems and approaches to adopt in order to achieve particular outcomes is the experience of the individual. The voice of the beneficiary is a very valuable gauge of a program’s impact. While we are deeply interested in group outcomes within and across Books@Work programs, we also recognize that not all participants have the same experience reading the same book or working with the same professor. That it is why – for us – capturing the experience of individuals through one-on-one interviews is so essential.

The need to examine individual experiences systematically as part of a robust qualitative research methodology became abundantly clear to me last week when Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work’s Executive Director, and I interviewed participants in a recently completed Books@Work program in Cleveland. To be sure, we recognize patterns throughout all of the interviews that we conduct (e.g. whether a particular book was thought-provoking for the group, whether a particular professor was especially skilled at inviting conversation around difficult topics, etc.). We use these patterns to inform our program, re-assessing program structure, recruiting, curriculum and professor training based on what we learn from the collective experience of participants.

But the impact of reading and learning with others is also contingent and highly particularistic. All those whom we interviewed last week explained that reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns – a prize-winning, meticulously researched and beautifully told account of the Great Migration – changed their perspectives. But the book, and the conversation surrounding it, changed their perspectives in ways that were quite personal.

One participant explained that reading The Warmth of Other Suns encouraged her to investigate her own family history, tracing her grandmother’s journey from the Deep South to Cleveland as part of the Great Migration, fitting her own history alongside the individual histories chronicled in the book. Another participant acknowledged that he was unaware of the profound historical and present-day discrimination that African-Americans encountered in the North, commenting that reading the book with colleagues spurred him to inquire more about the racism that others in the group had faced. A third participant stated that her views of what constituted history, and whose stories were worthy of consideration in history books, changed as a result of participating in the seminar. Several participants confided that the book helped them to think about the backgrounds and histories of the people that they, in turn, serve in their daily work.

At Books@Work, we collect survey data that offers a glimpse into the profound changes that come from participation in the program, and that also suggests ways that we can make improvements. However, surveys don’t often provide a platform for the rich exchanges, expressions of personal growth and deep understanding of how reading and discussing the same book with the same group can impact individuals in such different, highly personal ways. With the benefit of such reflections, we can ask better questions in future surveys and continue to refine our approaches and curricula to foster this level of personal growth and change from future groups.

Image: Francis Barraud, His Master’s Voice, 1898, [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons. Victor Talking Machine Company began using the symbol in 1900, and RCA began using the image in 1929.

Rachel Burstein

Rachel Burstein


Formerly the Academic Director for Books@Work, Rachel Burstein is now a Product Analyst for IXL Learning.