We need more courageous conversations

UOW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Patricia M. Davidson on why active listening matters

"We need to value listening across the organisation, perhaps even give a listening award," Professor Davidson says in a conversation with Professor Grace McCarthy from Sydney Business School, UOW

Professor Grace McCarthy: Thank you for making time today to talk about listening. You were named one of the Outstanding Women Listeners in the World in 2021 by the Global Listening Centre, next to former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. At what point in your life or career did you realise the significance of active listening for your personal and professional success?

Professor Patricia M. Davidson: I had an epiphany in 2003 when I was using motivational interviewing for behavioural change in heart disease. As part of the training, they measure the proportion of time you speak and the proportion of time the patient or subject speaks. As nurses, we are trained to tell people what to do. Since that time, I have been really aware of the value of listening.

What sets your approach to listening apart in your leadership roles, both during your tenure as the Dean at Johns Hopkins and now as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wollongong (UOW)?

We’ve all made transitions in our careers, but we can’t negate our original professional training. I’m an intensive care nurse. I’m trained to solve problems. When people come to me, I instinctively think about solutions – I have had to slow that process down consciously, be more patient, and really listen to other people and hear their ideas.

How have your listening skills evolved, and what impact has this evolution had on your leadership style and the outcomes of your initiatives?

The higher up you go, the more ambiguity and uncertainty there is. When we have a complex problem, I bring people together and say there is no right or wrong, but we have multiple perspectives in the room. We have to think not only about what is legal but also what is right. I articulate my own biases so that people know where I’m coming from. And I explain that when we make a collective decision, it is the best decision we can make at that time, and I tell them I will back them when we implement that decision.

Effective listening is part of having courageous conversations – you have to be prepared to listen and be prepared to change your point of view. Challenging conversations should not be seen as criticism. There is a lot of focus now on risk. Listening helps us to identify a broader range of risks. It is important for leaders to be accessible. When people come to see me with a complaint, I listen and then send them where they need to be. If I didn’t listen to them, the problem would escalate and possibly be vented outside the organisation, with the media, social media or courts. A lot of problems can be resolved at a lower level when people feel heard.

Listening helps us get at the root cause of problems rather than simply throw money at the symptoms. If someone complains, money may make them go away for a time, but it doesn’t solve any underlying issues.

The term 'listening environment' has been used to describe an organisational culture where listening is valued. What can a leader do to establish listening as a key component of the organisation’s culture?

The radical thing I would do is burn organisation charts. Everyone should be valued, no matter who they are, what they do or what level they are at. Role modelling is important, not just by me but by all our executives. We need to value listening across the organisation, perhaps even give a listening award. 

In terms of communication, I think more frequent and smaller meetings with staff may help people feel heard and appreciated. Listening should not be seen as something soft and fuzzy but rather as something we do as part of being accountable and taking responsibility for living the organisation’s values. In a large, complex and diverse organisation, we must be thoughtful and intentional about our culture and values.

VC chatting with people at UniBar

Your work has significantly contributed to healthcare and nursing research. How has active listening shaped your research endeavours?

Qualitative research used to be seen as soft and fluffy. Now, qualitative research is valued in nursing and across healthcare. The notion of listening has really changed how we do research. We now listen to patients. We co-design and co-create research with participants and develop interventions that are appropriate for the target group. We listen to understand why an intervention has or has not been effective.

If you could apply your thoughts on the importance of listening to the global arena, what is the parting message you would like to convey?

We have to have humility, acknowledge our own frailties, and be willing to show vulnerability. In these tumultuous times of conflict in many parts of the globe, it is more important than ever to listen to each other and connect with each other as human beings. We also need the courage to stand up for human rights and speak up for what is right. Listening helps us understand the perspectives of others, and that can form the basis for peace.

* Professor Patricia M. Davidson is a Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Wollongong (UOW), as well as a global leader in nursing, health care and advocacy

* Professor Grace McCarthy is Dean at Sydney Business School, UOW and Director of Global Listening Centre

This interview is republished from the Global Listener Newsletter, the official newsletter of the Global Listening Centre, December 2023, Issue 9. The original interview can be found here.