Beyond Hearing: The Role of Listening in Communication Success


Sam Ford and Sara Whitman
Sam Ford and Sara Whitman

Personally, most of us know that communication is more about listening than talking. As marketers and corporate communicators, however, our professional training has too often driven us to think of our job as the science of monitoring, followed by the art of persuasion.

We invest significant resources into hearing what audiences say about our organization. We track their online movements and monitor when our brands are mentioned in social media. We may even be able to tell you what our share of voice is and the aggregate sentiment expressed about our organization.

But this sort of hearing isn’t listening. Hearing is the physical reception of noise. Listening is an active processing of the meaning of that noise.

Amidst the rapid pace of professional life today, we’re often trying to make snap decisions as communication bombards us from all sides. Context is messy, so we turn our external audiences into data points and then start talking about those numbers as if they are the actual people. And we habitually skim what people say without actually listening to it.

It’s not just our external audiences we treat this way. Too often, we’re not actually listening to our clients or corporate leadership, our colleagues, and our business partners. We quickly flip through our bulging email boxes (often on our mobile devices) in the few minutes between meetings. We IM or call our colleagues when we need an answer to a specific question and then disappear again.

Ironically, we spend most of our time communicating yet shockingly little of it listening.

With all that we have to worry about in our daily work lives, why is improving our listening skills—whether online or in person—so important?  Listening to the context of what someone is saying:

  • Helps us actually understand what we’re hearing.
  • Leads to thinking about what might be done in response to what we hear.
  • Puts us in the mindset of serving those with whom we are communicating, not just seeking to get information we need or to persuade them to do something we want.
  • Ensures we’re actually working on solving the right problem.
  • Drives us and our company to recognize patterns developing with our employees, with our customers, with other key audiences, and in the culture in general.

The first step in being a better professional listener is difficult because it’s so simple. We have to be ready to listen. In spite of the information overload which surrounds us, we have to take the time to concentrate on those with whom we’re communicating and pay attention to the context of the conversations our external audiences are having, online and off.

This will likely involve eliminating what distracts us from truly listening to others. It means working with colleagues to ensure everyone values and prioritizes true listening. Perhaps most challenging of all, it requires having empathy for one another and for the communities to whom we’re listening.

But it’s worth it. We have seen the benefits that come with better listening skills. We’d even argue that true listening is what will transform marketing and communications from a function that promotes the company’s brand and its products and services into a trusted resource for unexpected insights that impact the direction of a business.

If we are deeply listening at all times, we may identify needs that haven’t been clearly articulated before, emerging challenges our company might be able to help address or solve, the early warning signs of potential crises, gaps between what our company’s communicating and what our audience is experiencing, and changes in the culture outside our company’s walls that we must evolve alongside or else risk becoming less relevant over time. And, arguably at the core of our business, listening builds stronger relationships.

We’ll leave you with a few tips to becoming a better listener, starting today:

1.     Develop your “uni-tasking” muscles. We’re increasingly adept at multitasking, but we must be able to shut everything else out and concentrate on a single conversation.

2.     Listen with all the senses at your disposal, especially when you’re communicating in person.

3.     Strengthen your articulation skills, to make sure you’re allowing yourself to listen and that you’re communicating that you’re listening to others.

4.     Try to leave your biases behind you when you’re listening. Make sure you aren’t just fitting what you hear into the formula you already expect and that you’re looking for unexpected patterns.

5.     Prioritize putting yourself in your audience’s shoes.

Sara Whitman is a senior director at Peppercomm. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sjwhitty.

Sam Ford is director of digital strategy at Peppercomm. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford. Find their agency on Twitter @peppercom