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Active Listening

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Do you consider yourself a good listener? Would your business colleagues say that you are a good listener? During my years of working in Marketing, Advertising and Broadcasting, I have discovered that it's not easy to be a good listener or to find someone who is genuinely interested in what you may have to say. Many people will hear the first couple of sentences and immediately change the subject to be about their personal experience without understanding what is being said. My favourite daily lessons is being able to observe how people interact with each other, even during COVID-19 more than ever. It appears to be even harder than ever before to find someone with all the skills of being a good listener.

Throughout my entire life, listening was taught as the most important skill to possess in order to survive. I didn't understand it at the time, but I as I became older it made perfect sense. Remember when your mother or father would ask you to do something, but you may have been watching a program on the television and responded with okay, but never moved away from the television? There was always something about the third threatening yell to get you moving. It was enough to make you listen and move quickly to avoid a spanking. Often my mother reminded me of Sergeant Carter from Gomer Pyle the way she would drill us to see if we were listening to everything she demanded. Often, she would switch the script and make up a story to see if we were following along. For me, I thought of it as a fun game to listen to every detail without interrupting and provide her with a play by play of the events. I became very good at it.

Let's face it, many of us have been taught to not listen for more than 20 seconds to what someone is saying because they are taking too long and it's easier to hijack the conversation by saying something like, "Hey, that reminds me of successful campaign I developed in 2018." That voice alone steals the moment and shuts down someone who trusted you to listen. Believe me, they won't trust you again to share anything because of the lack of patience and the excitement about responding without giving it your full attention and truly listening to what is being said and hearing what is needed.

Through my various walks of life, I have found that very few people possess good active listening skills because they have never been taught them or it's not something that they feel is necessary. Working with a variety of clients from large corporations, educational facilities, government entities and community-based organisations have taught me a lot about listening to the needs of the client. Working for large PR firms in Washington, DC and San Francisco taught me all the things you should never do when working with a client. Over the years I have tried to erase them from my memory, but it's simply not possible. Those lessons have helped to make Promotions West Communications unique in the way we provide good customer service to our clients. Whether it's a client with a small budget or a large organisation with lots of money to spend, we treat them both with the same respect. This is why active listening is a key part of providing excellent service.

In working with public relations and marketing clients, active listening is a key ingredient in assisting clients to be successful on every level. Every meeting starts with listening and hearing what the client wants to achieve. One ear is for listening to the client and the other is for hearing what the client desires and needs for a successful community engagement or social marketing/media campaign. Also, hearing all the non-verbal messages that the client is sharing through their body or non-verbal language. Being an active listener taught me to be extremely sensitive and aware of everything happening in the life of my clients. It's also important to summarise what the client has shared to make sure that the information was heard and received correctly. This is the first step on the path to a successful event or promotion.

For years I wondered why many people were not good listeners. Sitting quietly alone when you get a moment can unveil so much information. When you are quiet with yourself you can hear so much more. Most people, without their knowledge, are trained to respond and not to listen to an entire conversation. We are taught to hijack any conversation and redirect to our own story, give unwanted recommendations or prescribe the problem with solutions that worked for us. Trust me, this is the fastest way to lose credibility and trust with a client. It shouts loud and clear that I am not listening to you because I know what you need to do and listen to my story because I have the solution. It's the biggest mistake ever.

According to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention." Being in a relationship with someone who doesn't listen to hear what you may not be saying can be the most difficult and frustrating or if they are ready to diagnose your problem when you aren't asking for a prescription. So, what are the ingredients to be an active listener to our clients? Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker's behaviour and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message.

Establishing the habit of active listening can have many positive impacts on your life. When working with clients, new or old, active listening may allow you to understand the point of view of another person and respond with empathy. It also allows the opportunity to ask questions to make sure you understand what has been shared. The best part is that it validates the speaker and makes them want to share more with you. Great active listening will help you and the client to create great campaigns together. Too often, agencies will create campaigns that they think the client need as opposed to what they want. There is a big difference.

Here are a few helpful tips for practicing active listening:

  • Make eye contact while the other person speaks. You should aim for eye contact about 60 to 70% of the time while you are listening as opposed to looking at your phone or your watch. Avoid folding your arms as this signal you are not listening and may be bored.

  • Summarise what has been said rather than offering unsolicited advice or opinions.

  • Don't interrupt while the other person is talking. Never prepare your reply while the other person is speaking. It's an insult.

  • Observe nonverbal behaviour to pick up on hidden meanings, in addition to listening to what is said. Remember, facial expressions, tone of voice and other behaviours can often tell you more than words alone.

  • You can show interest by asking questions to clarify what is said. Ask open-ended questions to encourage a deeper conversation.

  • Never change the subject, it will make the person talking believe that you were not listening at all.

  • Try to be non-judgemental while listening.

  • Patience is truly golden. We can sometimes listen faster than others can speak.

So, are you a good active listener with your clients? The next time you have a meeting with your client, remember to listen and to hear so that you capture the message. If you feel the urge to interrupt, WAIT, and ask yourself, Why Am I Talking.

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