The Art of Listening / L’art d’écouter

Usually comfortable with talking, and rarely short of an opinion, David Phipps reflects on listening as a key skill for knowledge brokers.

Très à l’aise dans la parole et rarement à court d’opinion, David Phipps réfléchit à la capacité d’écoute comme qualité essentielle des courtiers de connaissance.

In this video Budd Hall (UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility, University of Victoria) speaks at the National University of Ireland in Galway about Community Based Research. Watch him at the one minute mark talk about listening.

“The most powerful piece of knowledge when working with community is that you never know. The never knowing causes one to listen. Learning to listen, being able to listen, is probably the most powerful tool you can develop. It is a tool one continues to develop all of one’s life.”

ListeningListening is a key quality and skill brokers need to support knowledge mobilization. In a fairly whimsical paper in Evidence & Policy in 2012 Sarah Morton (Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh) and I published on the qualities of knowledge brokers. One of those qualities was as therapist (communicator, listener and supporter). As one knowledge broker in our study expressed, “I bring a lot of respect of other organisations’ needs. I am a good listener and I put them at the centre of my work.”

I didn’t really pull all this together until a dinner I had in November in Calgary with Dan Goldowitz (Scientific Director, NeuroDevNet) and David Nicholas, a researcher from the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary and NeuroDevNet researcher. David’s research examines labour force participation among adults with high-functioning autism. Adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience high rates of unemployment and under-employment. Individuals with ASD frequently report hiring protocols and workplace environments that insufficiently accommodated their needs, under-recognize their cognitive abilities, and provide few opportunities for workplace advancement. This gap results in stress and under-employment for individuals and challenges for families. It further heightens the societal risk of not optimally engaging human talent that alternatively could offer benefit to the labour market. Vocational growth, personal satisfaction and economic benefit for these individuals with ASD may be substantially impeded due to such patterns of diminished labour engagement. David Nicholas’ research addresses the needs of adults with ASD and the needs of employers to seeking to maximize labour market involvement. He is working with employers and employer groups to develop tools and interventions aimed at creating inclusive hiring practices of businesses.

At dinner we explored how he might be able to maximize the impact of this research by focusing on the needs of employers and providing them with tools to help inform interview practices to create opportunities for people with ASD to be successful in interviews. We discussed holding research forums and the role of employers (both companies and industry associations) as co-leads in those knowledge exchange events. We discussed the role of unions as barriers and/or enablers to authentic participation of people with ASD in the labour market. We discussed impact of the research and on whom. We explored the current state of the research, where it could go and started to draw a pathway to that outcome. “We” meant that I asked, probed and peeked into the corners of this research and beyond. And I listened as David was kind enough to answer and help me come to understand his research and the potential impact it could have on the lives of people with ASD.

That was over dinner, maybe one hour after the getting to know you chit chat.

As we were wrapping up David said to me that I should write about “the art of listening”.

Apparently I wasn’t listening at that moment as I kind of brushed off the idea not giving it the attention it deserved. But since then I have returned to listen to that comment and come to realize that the art of listening is key to knowledge brokers supporting knowledge mobilization.

Knowledge brokers are not necessarily experts in the fields in which they work. Knowledge brokers have the ability to ask questions, listen and form a partnership with the researcher and his/her collaborators to help develop a pathway from research to impact.

Sure there are tools to help support knowledge mobilization planning such as those developed by Melanie Barwick or the Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health. Knowledge brokers need to use those tools but to do so they first need to ask questions and sit back and just listen.

6 Responses to “The Art of Listening / L’art d’écouter”

written by Michael Johnny On 27 February 2015 Reply

Great post. Listening to understand versus listening to respond is a fundamental aspect of successful brokering and one, I believe, is not discussed enough or is assumed without understanding its real value. The broker you refer to in your study with Sarah is spot on when speaking about respect. With that value central to this work, it becomes easier but remains integral to effectively listen.

Thanks for sharing. If we’re seeking fundamental skills for effective brokering I would place listening near the top. But purposeful listening, listening to understand.

I’m glad I read this now. I have a few meetings today which will require me to listen and this is a good reminder of its importance.

Michael Johnny

written by Shasta Carr-Harris On 1 March 2015 Reply

An insightful post! Thank you.

Do you think the discipline and practice of “knowledge mobilization” somehow discourages us from listening?

For example, “knowledge mobilization” has come to refer to efforts that encourage the use of research in practice and policy making. Emphasis is often placed on mobilizing one type of knowledge – research knowledge from the research community. Other types of knowledge from other communities, such as practitioner, policy maker or service user knowledge rooted in context and experience, are commonly left unmentioned or given less attention in definitions of KMb. Problematic, it seems, since these other forms of knowledge can be used to improve the quality, relevance, and usefulness of research evidence mobilized to practitioners, policy makers and service users (such as medical patients, parents, and students).

In short, my question/concern is this: by placing value primarily on the mobilization of research knowledge does KMb encourage us to listen more to researchers and the research community and less to others – such as communities that Knowledge Brokers work with – and, in this way, inadvertently jeopardize the quality of the KMb process itself?

Again, thank you for this interesting post!

written by David Phipps On 2 March 2015 Reply

Thanks Shasta. being a knowledge broker requires us to listen. That’s the only to create equity between different voices and different ways of knowing. Knowledge brokers practice listening and it is a skill we need to bring to the table esp when others occupying positions of power and privilege may be more used to speaking. this is particularly true when brokering collaborations and relationships instead of brokering codified knowledge. There is a difference brokering expertise vs. evidence. Both require listening but we listen at different times in the cycle.

written by Amanda Cooper On 17 March 2015 Reply

Hi- Intriguing post. I have two comments and the first is for Shasta. Many critique research knowledge as narrow – however when I think about educational research there are so many diverse voices captured – from policymakers to practitioners to collaborative studies including marginalized groups, so I don’t think a focus on KMb narrows issues. I conceptualize KMb in terms of collaborative processes across diverse stakeholders, so even though research might anchor and inform the discussion – a focus on KMb still opens possibilities and broadens our ways of thinking about solving contextual problems in my opinion. My second comment relates to an internal check that a colleague once told me about listening. She said that during a conversation we often begin formulating our point and what we might say next even as someone is talking – and that prevents us from truly listening. I catch myself now and try to make sure I am not trying to formulate what to say next as a listener but really leaving my mind open to consider and reflect on what is being said and trying to understand the phenomenon from the speakers perspective. I think my colleague made a great point and it might be a tangible way to assess how well we are really listening to each other.

written by Rossana Coriandoli On 14 April 2015 Reply

I believe that use of the term “knowledge mobiilzation” doesn’t preclude listening — in the case of the Evidence Exchange Network (EENet), we include lived experience in our definition of “evidence”. This, I believe, makes “listening” a part of the knowledge exchange (or mobilization) process, as it’s only through listening that we can capture such lived experience. And we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak: our online community ( gives stakeholders of the mental health and addictions system in Ontario (including researchers, policymakers, and persons with lived experience) a forum where they can share evidence and listen to one another.

written by Vicky Ward On 24 March 2016 Reply

Great post, David and also some interesting comments here. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! I agree with Amanda – knowledge mobilisation is now the term I prefer precisely because it doesn’t focus on the one way transfer of a particular kind of knowledge. Knowledge mobilisation is a broad church and encompasses the exchange and creation of knowledge of all kinds.
Agree too about the need to listen – many of the dialogic techniques I just posted on my blog ( place a huge emphasis on listening and the community of Enquiry approach expects people to build on the point just made by someone else in the group, rather than waiting for their turn to speak. I’ll be posting more about that technique soon…
Thanks again for an interesting post and for the opportunity to join in the discussion!

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