The lost art of listening — How listening has helped me to be a better communicator
We moved to Ireland in the early 80s and every Friday night from about the age of 12 I’d settle down to watch The Late Late Show, an iconic Irish chat show, where people really knew how to talk.
I loved it, listening to all the guests’ stories, the ups and downs of their lives, filled with so much emotion and a song and dance thrown in. There wasn’t anyone Gay Byrne wouldn’t listen to. And there’d be my parents take on it all. No Dad Sinead O’Connor isn’t on drugs she’s just passionate about stuff, groan (teenage eyes to heaven).
That and working in the family run village shop set me up for a life of listening and I felt like I had certain predisposition to it. I ended up working in the media, specialising in documentaries, and was lucky enough to make films with people from all walks of life — teenagers, people with Asperger’s, rape victims, activists, asylum seekers, footballers, drug addicts.
For a listener, communications was a natural next step and what I’ve done for the last 15+ years. If I could summarise in just two words the number one skill that’s helped me in my career as a communicator it’s the ability to listen well.
Listening seems like such an innate ability that it might seem odd to endow it with so much importance. From the moment we’re born and even before, we’re so finely tuned into the sounds around us that we pick up a whole new language. Surely we must be great at it!
The fact is for all sorts of reasons, we’re losing the art of listening and it’s affecting so many parts of our lives, including our ability to solve the biggest crises of our time — climate change and biodiversity loss.
What I’ve learned is that listening well is something we need to learn. It means listening with an open mind and with the intention of hearing another person’s perspective and learning something new.
As someone who sees life as one big learning experience, to me that’s really appealing or I’ve convinced myself it is but the fact is we can feel very challenged by people who have different views to our own. Our values, beliefs and attitudes are so deep-rooted, formed through our personal experiences and the influence of those around us as were growing up.
The world we now live in makes it so easy to group ourselves with people just like us. We choose media outlets that confirm our own biases and despite social media having the potential to open us up to a whole new world of people and ideas, a number of studies such as this one show it can in fact limit our point of view and our perception of people.
‘Social media may limit the exposure to diverse perspectives and favor the formation of groups of like-minded users framing and reinforcing a shared narrative, that is, echo chambers’.
With over half the world’s population now active on social media — 84% of western Europeans — it’s an increasing problem especially when trying to address the kind of large scale changes that we need right now. More than ever we need to work together and be united, drawing out the kindness and generosity that, like language, I believe is inherent in us. We will only ever do that by listening to each other and understanding and acknowledging other people’s experiences and perspectives.
When it comes to the field of communications that means taking the time to understand the people we want to engage with before embarking on a campaign or project — their motivations, values, beliefs, concerns. Good communicators don’t presume things about people or take their lead from outside sources like the media or their own social media echo chambers. They do their research and genuinely listen to people.
There are many ways to do this — one-to-one conversations, focus groups, in-depth interviews, workshops, events, online surveys. From experience face-to-face is always best.
It’s been tricky to do over the last couple of Covid years but sadly even before that we’d already started to skip this vital part of the process. Budget cut after budget cut has meant that the important research phase of communications work is slowly being diminished. Many clients only want to pay for the visible return on their investment which means ‘strong’ visual assets, catchy slogans and how that translates into social media engagements, impressions, click through rate, websites hits, bounce rates, the list goes on.
A result of bypassing this phase is a tendency to stereotype, to bunch people together and base our communications on what we think people want to hear. It means we lose the real essence and subtleties at play in our societies. Campaigns can become all but meaningless and we’ve seen plenty of those.
What I love about the social enterprise that I co-direct with Rob Greenland, and Gill Coupland, SBB — Social Business Brokers, is that we spend time out in communities, collaborating and co-designing projects with people that live in those communities. We work at a grassroots level which results in more meaningful outcomes and projects that often become self-sustaining — the holy grail. It also means that when we come to creating campaigns they’re informed by what we’ve learned from listening to those people, and so they have a much better chance of meeting their objectives.
One such project is Leeds School Uniform Exchange which is about making good quality secondhand school uniform readily available to all families in Leeds and an associated campaign to get everyone sharing or setting up new schemes. At last count over 90% of schools in the city are now covered by an exchange, making it really easy for people to get and donate uniform. It’s resulted in significant social and environmental benefits. We created a citywide framework for it to flourish but it’s people in community groups and schools that continue to run the exchanges.
If you’ve got an idea or a challenge you need help with and would like us to explore how we could develop a project or campaign together, please get in touch.