Listening and Learning – How it works
Monica Edwards summarises the process, objectives and outcomes of the Listening and Learning sessions, developed by the Champions of Change Coalition.
The Listening and Learning sessions used by the members of the Champions of Change Architecture Group draw on the tools of social change, which lead with listening first. This allows for those stories and narratives hovering below the acceptable discourse of a group, to emerge to the surface. Through listening, the lived experience of life in a practice is revealed, which is often different to the stories we tell ourselves.
This article describes the principles of Listening and Learning and the process developed by and for the Champions of Change Architecture practices, which range in size from 30 people to 800. The fundamental principle of ‘listening first’ is relevant to the leaders of organisations of all sizes, while the process can be adapted to suit the specifics of medium-sized and small practices.
We share this framework to encourage other architecture practices to explore the Listening and Learning model. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how you have adopted and adapted it to suit the particulars of your practice.
Object and outcomes
The objectives of Listening and Learning sessions are:
- To deepen the understanding of the challenges, experiences and barriers that others may face in the workplace.
- To listen, learn, reflect and build on the insights shared.
- For leaders to continue to invest personal time and commitment to make progress towards gender balance and representation in their practice.
The outcomes expected of the Listening and Learning sessions are:
- Provide insight into visible (known) and invisible (unknown) barriers that continue to exist.
- Challenge perceptions and trigger opportunities to experiment and make further change within own sphere of influence.
- Demonstrate a powerful personal leadership commitment to a safe workplace that embraces all people.
- Listen to different voices and learn new perspectives to the challenges and opportunities within your practice.
A minimum of four focus groups are held across the practice, divided by gender with non-binary leaders welcome across all four groups. Groups are separated by gender to draw out gendered patterns of experience as follows:
- Senior male leaders, director level and above
- Senior female leaders, director level and above
- Emerging male leaders
- Emerging female leaders
Each group incorporates a mix of people: those with and without caring responsibilities; with client-facing roles and support functions; and people who influence recruitment and promotion experiences as well as those affected by those decisions. Facilitated by the Champion, the group’s focus is on listening only, driving an agenda of how the practice could change, and probing for a future state.
Senior male leaders at a director level and above, are asked the following questions. The feedback helps to map gendered blind spots within the practice leadership.
- Thinking about the women in your team / pipeline, what are the conditions and culture you believe have helped them to perform, develop, progress and thrive? Are there differences to your experience? Why/why not?
- What do you perceive are the barriers to meaningful gains in women in leadership positions? Personal circumstances? Within our practice? More broadly?
- What are the one or two changes that would make the most significant impact in advancing more women – including future generations – into leadership positions within architecture?
The focus for senior female leaders at a director level invites personal experience, giving insight into navigating the practice culture as it stands today – what has worked well, and what needs to be improved? The questions are the same as that of the senior male leadership, with the addition of:
- Thinking about your own experiences, what were the conditions and culture you believe have helped you perform, develop, progress and thrive?
The questions asked of emerging male and female leaders focus on a future state – what could change? The aim of these sessions is to understand personal experience with a focus on change rather than a focus on past performance, which at times can be negative.
- Who are the role models you look to in our practice / our industry and why
- Thinking about your career and future aspirations, what are the conditions and culture you believe you will need to perform, develop, progress and thrive? In your life? Within our practice / your team? More broadly?
- Are there any obvious barriers within our practice or more broadly that may impact this?
- What are the one or two changes that you believe would make the most significant difference in advancing more women into senior/leadership positions within our practice / architecture more broadly?
Responses are then collated by the Champion and compiled into a practice report. The report is divided into sections for the different focus groups and covers the following broad headings:
- Formal policies and structures that support women in senior positions
- Culture and conditions that support women in senior positions
- Barriers to women in senior positions in our practice
- Barriers to women in senior positions more broadly
- Experiences and best practices we can share with others
- Barriers that require action within my practice
- Recognising that each of us experiences the workplace differently and that every person’s experience is valid, review and reflect on what you learnt. What surprised you? What were the differences/similarities between the different groups?
- What are two or three simple changes or experiments that could be done at a Practice / team level to enable more people to thrive? What’s holding YOU back in making this happen?
- What are two or three actions YOU can commit to influence/change the status quo to enable more people to thrive?
- How will YOU know YOU’VE been successful?
The important task for leaders is to listen, and to be open to what you hear with the intention to change. Active listening means:
- Pay attention. Focus on the speaker.
- Do not interrupt.
- Ignore distractions.
- Hold back on sharing an opinion, especially one that indicates if you agree or disagree. The speaker is sharing their experience. Listen without judgement, defensiveness or thinking of what your response will be. Simply listen.
- Be open; reflect on the stories and emotions being shared with you. Everyone sees the world differently, framed by their own experiences. Understand how others see it.
- Be comfortable to ask questions if you don’t understand something. This fosters an environment of trust and care.
- It is okay to repeat what you have heard in your own words; this reaffirms for the individual that you understand the context of their experience.
- Take time to summarise the experiences being shared with you; this requires vulnerability and a willingness to change.
Continuing the cycle
The Champions of Change Architecture Group process starts with the Listening and Learning sessions and return to them at the start of every cycle. This recognises that architects are adept at learning via a process that is very similar to the design process – the ability to analyse and interpret a brief is fundamental to our training. It also recognises that striving for equity, in any form, is a continuous act. All humans experience the world differently. This difference must be constantly monitored to distinguish patterns of unfairness. Once these patterns are realised, it is important to take action – to intervene – always within our circle of influence. The aim is to provide a level playing field where all individuals – the people in our practice, our clients, our consultant team, even the people that inhabit future spaces – contribute authentically and safely to the built environment.
Monica Edwards is a member of the Champions of Change Architecture Group and a Senior Associate at SJB.
The Architecture Group was established in 2015 with nine practices to address the acute underrepresentation of women in the senior levels of the architecture profession; the Architecture Group now has 14 practices actively participating to increase the representation and influence of women at the highest levels of the profession. In 2021, the Group’s members were located across 11 jurisdictions, leading over 3,000 employees.
The Champions of Change Architecture Group is a specialist industry group within the global Champions of Change Coalition of more than 260 CEOs, secretaries of government departments, NEDs and community leaders who believe gender equality is a major business, economic, societal and human rights issue.
Photo: Elizabeth Broderick, Jess Murphy and Callantha Brigham in the audience at the launch of the Champions of Change Architecture Group, 2015. Photographer, Oly Begg.