1

How to listen

Listening is fundamental to good relationships and critical to organisational communication. But it’s a much underrated skill that is seldom taught.

My grandfather was an incredible listener. We’d work on a shared project in his workshop. He gave me his time and attention. They are two of the most valuable things in anyone’s gift.

I don’t ever remember him offering a solution but that was part of his skill. I’d always seem to land in a better place. I miss him.

I don’t think my Grandfather was ever taught active listening but for him it was a well-developed skill.

I’ve picked up listening throughout my education and working life.

I wasn’t taught formal skills until I joined Ketchum. We’re taught line management, mentoring, research and listening.

Position and place

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to build a relationship with someone is to position yourself face to face. Observing and mirroring body language is a means of building a relationship.

The goal here isn’t to build a relationship but to listen. A relationship may be an outcome. Sitting or standing face to face isn’t the best way to discuss sensitive or personal issues.

Car journeys, shared activities and walking, are all good ways of addressing difficult issues in a non-confrontational way.

Face to face

There’s a hierarchy of effective communication that ranges from face to face communication to electronic means. Email, messaging, threads in community discussions are all a means of listening.

Try and move conversation to face to face as quickly as possible, especially if the discussion relates to something thorny. Avoid the potential for misunderstanding that arises from media disintermediation.

I often pick up the phone in response to an email. It genuinely surprises people but it’s typically the quickest and easiest way of resolving issues.

Support rather than solve

Our natural response as human beings is to solve other people’s problems. We jump in and suggest how challenges should be addressed, and problems solved.

This may be appropriate in sales situations but it isn’t appropriate if you’re listening and want to learn. Or if someone needs to talk and is desperate to be heard and have their issue acknowledged.

Open questions are a good way to explore a topic or issue. Avoid leading and closed questions. They will inevitably introduce bias.

There’s no such thing as a daft question. The only daft question is the one that isn’t asked.

Make time to listen

How often have you responded to a request for help, with yes but I’m very busy and a list of your appointments or to do list?

Busyness is a currency and a disease of modern of business and humanity. It’s bollocks. There’s no place for ego in listening.

Clear your diary or ring fence time. Switch off technology and ensure that you’re present when someone wants your attention.

Listening at scale

Research is a discipline in marketing and public relations that seeks to identify and listen to a public. There are a variety of tools and techniques including audits, data, focus groups, surveys, and listening tools.

When you’re planning a campaign it’s as important to get as close to a public as possible, and ensure that you’ve got a representative sample.

We have access in public relations to data unlike ever before, often at low cost. Ensure that it’s representation of your audience or public.

Deaf ears

There’s an acute difference between hearing and listening.

We hear the words that we speak to each other as vibrations in the air thanks to our ears. However listening is a function of our brain that requires us to add context and meaning, and determine how to respond.

Organisations often claim to listen to their customers and invest in a variety of tools such survey forms, hotlines and social media listening.

But if they don’t act on feedback they can’t claim to be listening and may as well be deaf.

Thanks for stopping by. If you enjoyed this blog post you may like to receive future posts as they are published, via email. Please sign-up here.

Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

One Comment

  1. Heartily endorse listening before speaking in communications. A 101 lesson some ppl never learn or too easily forget. However (c’mon this is me commenting here Stephen)… I disagree that there’s no such thing as a daft question. I’ve heard plenty and asked plenty of extraordinarily daft questions. It’s also not true that every opinion turns out to be one which is worth listening to. I agree everyone should get a hearing, but part of the skill of a good communicator is to be able to tell who matters and who doesn’t matter to us, and whose opinions matter. Often organisations worry about criticisms from people who don’t matter to them, just as we as individuals can be concerned about the opinions of other people who don’t really matter to us. For example, there’s no point in you treating my opinion as valid as someone who matters to you. My views might be interesting or just irritating for you to hear, but you don’t need to listen to them because my opinions are irrelevant to your work and life. At a stretch all opinions are worth listening to equally, but as with people, some opinions are a lot more equal than others! Thanks for listening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *