I attended a board meeting as a guest, to participate in public comment at the meeting. After watching other guests try and fail to get board members’ attention, I decided not to speak. Their blatant disregard for those who did step up was disappointing to say the least. One speaker resorted to saying, “Excuse me, I’m speaking to you.” Is this the best we can expect from people in power?
In a word, no. This is not the best we can expect, nor should we lower our expectations of people in power. I’m sorry you were silenced, and hope that the board’s (or some of the board’s) bad behavior won’t deter you from trying again. I’ve served on many boards and witnessed the cost of poor listening skills. I am personally often guilty of not doing my best to listen.
“I’m tuning you out” resonates loud and clear, although people sending that message may not realize how easy it is to detect. We’ve all seen these behaviors that can be interpreted to mean “you don’t matter”:
- Checking one’s phone or doing other work while someone is speaking
- Directing eye contact away from the speaker
- Drooping posture that signals boredom
- Failing to send “I’m listening, I care” cues in short phrases like “I see” or “Please go on…”
- Facial expressions other than interest and consideration of the speaker’s main points
- Forgetting to greet and thank speakers by name
- Failing to ask clarifying questions to show the message was received and mattered
Most humans are more interested in sending messages than in receiving them. It takes energy, effort and EQ to become a good listener. Many of us overestimate our listening skills. It’s a full-body, full-mind pursuit to really get it right.
It boils down to this: volunteer or paid board members can check in with themselves and get real about whether they’re still interested and able to serve the cause. If they can no longer listen well to public comment, that’s an important sign. Paul Tillich, the German theologian, said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”
Putting ourselves in their shoes, we can empathize with the situation these board members find themselves in:
- Perhaps they’ve lost their love for, or interest in the cause.
- Perhaps their in-box is full and other commitments are vying for their attention.
- Perhaps they have to listen to repetitive comments month after month.
- Perhaps they have to listen after a long day, while tired or hungry – both are important factors in communication.
- Perhaps they have to listen despite disagreeing with the speaker’s position.
But you’re right, they have to listen, or should step down to allow a fresh set of ears to step up to the plate.