Listening: A Universal Principle

60 Decibels
4 min readNov 20, 2019

By Ashley Speyer, Manager at 60 Decibels

Photo by specphotops

Applying Lean Data in the United States

As humans, we’re hard-wired to look for data that confirms our beliefs, and we pay closest attention to information we come across that aligns with our values.

In 2016, I was shocked by the outcome of the U.S. election. This was due, in part, to the fact that I was living in Nairobi, Kenya at the time. But I also must confess that I only paid attention to data that affirmed my beliefs: talking to friends who shared my values; reading and listening to individuals whose opinions and worldview aligned with my own.

What about the 46 percent of Americans that voted for Trump because they felt unheard? That election made their voice loud and clear and it’s an important reminder of the gap between the data that we “know” to be true and the actual lived reality in the world around us.

While we know intellectually that it’s important to make data-driven decisions, the mistake I made — having too much confidence in what I “knew” to be true — is all too common. Particularly in social change work, where we feel a deep and personal investment in the positive outcome of our work, it can, counterintuitively, be tempting to avoid seeking objective data.

For the last six years, my team at 60 Decibels has devoted itself to addressing this problem through the act of listening. We’ve developed innovative ways to listen to customers to better understand their lived experience. Our global infrastructure, of both people and software, is designed to make the essential act of listening simpler.

We laid the foundation for this work in some of the world’s toughest environments: remote parts of India and East Africa with poor infrastructure and dispersed customer bases. We found that we could leverage the near-universal rates of cell phone penetration, and couple it with our deep expertise in how to write great questions to understand social impact. This has allowed us to execute phone surveys to help listen to customers at scale. So far, our team of 170+ researchers have listened to more than 100,000 customers in 34 countries and 33 languages.

With all of this experience, and the difficult environments we’ve worked in, I find it ironic that I often get asked:

“That sounds amazing, but does this approach apply in the United States?”

The answer is a resounding “yes” because what we’re doing boils down to listening to what people have to say. Whether we’re learning from a farmer in Uganda or a parent in Michigan, taking the time to ask tested, intelligent questions yields powerful results. When this is done in a respectful way, we’ve found that people want the opportunity to be heard and they are interested to share more about their lives.

The adaption of our Lean Data work to the United States has been surprisingly smooth. We’ve worked with for-profits, community organizations and non-profits, and we are getting great results. The one major difference we’ve found in the U.S. market is lower response rates: globally, our average response rate is 52%, meaning that more than half of the people we call respond to our questions. In the U.S. our response rates have ranged from 15–30%. While these numbers feel low to us, they are high by U.S. standards, and we believe that part of the reason is how we approach surveys, the power we give to customers (for example to schedule calls when it’s convenient for them), and the quality of our researchers who are skilled at building strong rapport with customers. And, some places are just easier — in a few regions (hello, Midwesterners!), we’ve found higher response rates and friendlier respondents. But the bottom line is: our U.S.-based research team calls people directly, and they get great data.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, so much of the data we take for granted in the U.S. comes from phone calls to gather data. For example, the most accurate political polling is done with people calling other people on the phone — and, according to Nate Silver, “Live interviewers [calling] both landlines and cellphones continue to outperform other methods, such as online and automated (IVR) polls.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for continuing improvement. For example, recognizing the mistakes in polls leading up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, recently, the NY Times / Siena College completed phone surveys with 5,000 Americans to get a more accurate, state-by-state view of the upcoming 2020 presidential election — you can hear the whole story in this podcast. It gets into the nitty-gritty of response rates, correcting sampling bias, and how tone of voice can make or break a successful interview.

The NY Times poll shows that by asking carefully designed, respectful questions and engaging in real conversations you can begin to get information, relatively quickly, to inform decision-making. For some reason, though, we haven’t applied this principle of listening to issues of social change — in and outside of the U.S. — in a systematic way. It is the process of how this data was collected and the thoughtfulness and effort that went into it that is exactly the type of work that my team is doing and that I believe in.

In my view, the most important source of truth is hearing from the people who social change work aims to serve. Yet, the voice of these individuals is often absent from programs, strategies, and choices about which organizations to support.

Despite the technology revolution, it’s tempting to only listen to people in your direct bubble. And at a time when the world is becoming so divided, it’s easy to forget the human connection that brings us together. Listening, the fundamental principle that underlies Lean Data, absolutely applies in the U.S. and is needed now more than ever.



60 Decibels

We make it easy to #ListenBetter to the people who matter most. Learn more: