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Communicating is an active process made up of three continuous and mutually reinforcing actions. It starts with listening, but involves equal parts learning and sharing. Doing all three well requires intentionality, focus and time.

Once your organization has realized its brand, embraced its culture and weighed its strategic choices, you are ready to lean into the most active stage of the communication process.

That process starts with listening — something organizations must do in order to truly understand the context in which they will be communicating. Those who listen best are very intentional about opening their organizational ears to try and understand the nuanced environment in which their words and actions will be received.

Good listeners listen to understand, not to respond. Until you establish consistent methods for listening to, and truly hearing, what’s going on around you, there is a high likelihood that your outbound efforts — proactive communications — may miss their desired target.

Listening can take many forms: paying attention to news cycles, participating actively in social media, running regular focus groups or opinion polls, routinizing evaluations and self-assessments, convening stakeholders, or even meeting donors over coffee for advice. Online data gathering tools like SurveyMonkey offer quick, inexpensive options for tracking the pulse of your stakeholders or customers, while resources like the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Reports provide deeper, more focused methods for understanding how your actions, choices and methods are landing with grantees.

As the first step in the listening/learning/sharing cycle, listening also takes time. It is not something you do once, or once a year. It is not a box to be checked so that you can get on to the “real” business of talking. Think instead about how you can build listening tools into every communication action you take. Invite feedback and reader comments on your website. Share staff email addresses so people know where to find you. Follow up with grantees after they submit progress reports. And so on. The key is to be inquisitive, receptive and responsive in all you do.