The Participation Blog

Real Public Communications Requires Listening

Public CommunicationsWhether you are engaging in basic public communications or crisis management activities, simple facilitation or consensus building on a complex topic, there is one skill that we all need at all times: The ability to listen. If you have watched any of the recent town hall meetings on TV, you will see just how important this can be.

Public communications experts understand that good information can’t just be a one directional data delivery exercise. We have all now been exposed to the concept of “active listening” at some point. However, most of us are just not that good at it, and frankly no amount of um-hmm’s or rephrasing is going to work if your heart is not really into it. If we are going to really hear each other, we need to take our listening skills to the next level.

Over time, I have shifted from the idea of active listening to one of intentional listening. To really listen, we have to start with the clear and conscious “intent” to hear what the other person has to say. We listen because we actually care about and want to understand what they have to tell us. This simply can’t be faked.

I view intentional listening as a process. Next time you need to have an important conversation, the following steps might help you to be more effective.

  1. Set The Stage

The most important thing you can do to help a conversation is plan for it ahead of time. Try to find a quiet, safe place that allows for an actual conversation where all parties feel empowered to share. Shut out the myriad distractions of everyday life and give your full attention to the speaker. You can’t “squeeze in” important conversations. You need to give people time to explore issues and speak fully. Most people will take a long time before they are ready to say what is most personal or important.

  1. Clear Your Mind

We can think four times faster than we can talk, much less listen and process information, so it takes effort to pay attention and concentrate on the speaker. Don’t argue. Do not let your opinions lead or interrupt your listening, and keep your emotions in check. We all have strong opinions, and they get in the way of truly hearing others. Remember, this conversation is not about you.

  1. Help the Speaker be Understood

Yes, you need to shut your mouth before you can open your mind. However, complete silence is not usually helpful either. Understand that you are interpreting all communication through your own knowledge and world view. Do not assume you know what others mean or that you are interpreting their non-verbal communication accurately. Express interest and encourage communication equally, not just about issues where you agree. Ask questions to get clarification and encourage deeper thought in a gentle, supportive way. Let them know that you are truly seeking to understand.

  1. Demonstrate That You Have Heard

The purpose of listening is to understand what the speaker thinks and why, not to give your own opinions about what the speaker is saying. Try to put yourself in the other’s place so you can understand what s/he is trying to communicate and why it matters. Open up to the other speaker in your body language and your thoughts. Reflect back what you’ve heard so that both of you are clear that you have understood clearly what was intended and how you have captured it.

For public communications to be effective, you will find that an hour invested in truly understanding someone may save you a great deal of the pain that results from miscommunication, misunderstanding, and serious conflict over time.


Author: Doug Sarno