The Power of Listening

| Anna Eaton

I have been struck recently by the importance of listening and what it actually means to listen.

Listening is often bandied around as a token term, especially in politics. We need to be seen to be listening. Have we heard the public? The trouble is, you can hear all you like and many people are good at being heard, but that does not mean they are being listened to.

In February at the launch of Collaborate’s research report on Building Collaborative Places, panel speaker Lord Victor Adebowale said that organisations need to listen to people. And when they are listening, the person being heard needs to confirm they have felt listened to and only they can confirm this.

This statement reminded me of a lecture I attended at the London School of Economics in November 2016 titled The Lost Art of Listening: the missing key to democratic and civil society participation

The main speaker, Professor Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at University of Technology Sydney, is in the process of conducting a study of organisational listening. The study has so far lasted two years, and looks at listening by corporations, non-government organisations and government organisations and bodies in the UK, Australia and the United States.

Through his study, Professor Macnamara has concluded that most organisations listen sporadically, poorly at best and sometimes not at all to their stakeholders and public.

He conceded that staff often don’t have tools, resources or skills to analysis and process huge amounts of correspondence and listen properly. He believes organisations need to replace the architecture of speaking with an architecture of listening. And organisations need to want to listen.

From my own experience in public and private organisations, although there may be good intentions about listening, I have felt there has been a fear of listening. There is a misinterpretation that if we listen, we must agree and then deliver, so organisations often don’t start listening at all.

Professor Macnamara would argue that listening does not mean a guarantee of agreement. The process of listening meaningfully can build trust, allow for different voices to be heard and for organisations to access important views and information in order to work more effectively.

He stated that when we look around in our society we see declining trust in Government. Declining participation in democracy, decline in political parties. Declining trust in businesses and declining employee and customer loyalty.

Professor Macnamara argues that more effective listening could increase trust and participation, loyalty and most importantly a more equitable society. The power of listening properly could be transformative.

Photo by Lee Campbell

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