Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Let listening (not speaking) be your superpower

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Maja Smolarek, Platform Solutions Consultant, Adform

Did you ever wonder what the words appreciative, empathic, comprehensive, and critical have in common? 

All of them are types of listening. 

Last time you had a conversation with your client, or direct report did you even know there were four different ways you could listen to them? Listening is often an ignored or unrecognised skill – maybe even an art – that we could all be better at. 

Recent research from Accenture found that most workers spend their days multitasking and distracted. According to the study, listening is described by people as “hard” and “demanding” (as did “thinking before speaking”!) yet only 38% of companies had offered a workshop in such a field. 

From the day we’re born: the relationship between parent and child, teacher and student, being a leader to your team, being on the same wavelength with your clients or even struggling in political negotiations, the art of listening is key to success. And competitive advantage. 

William Ury – one of the best-known experts on negotiation – in his TED Talk argues the reason we have two ears and one mouth is because we should listen twice as much as we speak. We are always too focused on us; what will we say in a reply; where do we disagree. 

Ury does not claim it is easy to discover what hides behind someone’s words, and encourages us to practice every day, but also has proof that really listening can see great results. 

He once had a meeting with the President of Venezuela during a time of conflict, just before Christmas, as a third-party between the government and the opposition. From the first sentence, the President began to shout. Ury, instead of defending, decided to listen and simply offered his attention. After half an hour of being speechless, he finally saw a sign of the human mind opening to listen. Mister President asked him for advice (which was the main goal of the meeting) and as a result Venezuelan have spent the holidays in peace and joy.

One day I decided to try a small experiment with two of my clients. Both of them claimed they needed one, specific solution that my company could offer. 

As always, the briefs were… brief. For the first meeting, I simply presented a product, detailed the pros and cons, showed examples and proposed a follow-up call in a few weeks. 

In the second meeting, I did something completely different: I let the audience speak! I asked two simple questions:

1. Why do you think you need it? 

2. What do you think you might gain? 

I decided not to interrupt, until the awkward silence came. By the end of the meeting everyone had realised that the client still needed a solution, but a completely different solution to the one they’d originally requested. We’ve started working on implementation immediately. 

(And yes, I helped the other client too!). 

However, the ability to listen is not only powerful in negotiations or client meetings. In The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo, she describes a game of telephone we all played as a kid. Do you know the rules? A message is passed on in a whisper by each person to the next, so that the final version of the message is often completely different from the original one: “What you intend to say and what the listener hears are not always the same”, Julie wrote. 

How to transition from being focused on speaking to being focused on listening isn’t easy. 

Mike Myatt, the author of Hacking Leadership and Leadership Matters gives some great advice on how to be a better listener. First: don’t be too busy. Don’t try and rush to the end of a conversation, just to get it over with. Second, listen to non-verbal signs, because people have a lot to say via their actions, body language, facial expressions. 

So next time you receive a media brief… don’t rush to shout out the solution. Ask more questions and let the client speak. Consider using critical listening – evaluate the content of the message you received and analyze it.

Be ‘all ears’ when your boss has feedback and say thank you. Use an appreciative type of listening, the same as when you are listening to motivational TED Talk or to your favourite sketch comedy team. 

Listen when your partner shares a thought or feeling instead of arguing. An empathic style might be helpful here – identify with your speaker, try to understand his/her feelings, and focus on them, not yourself. 

If you’re taking part in a workshop, it might be a challenge but do your best and be comprehensive in the way you are listening. Concentrate but participate. Pay attention to a speech, but make notes about what’s relevant to you. 

No matter who you are or who you aspire to be, the art of listening needs to be learned and honed. There might be very different reasons you might need it – from being just a good and helpful colleague to becoming an exceptional manager, an understanding partner, or a best-performing sales person. Just be open, and use your two ears to do what they’re made for.