The Art of Listening and Public Engagement

As an adjunct professor at Oklahoma State University, I spend a lot of time geeking out on public engagement and communications strategies. I talk to students about what it means to truly listen in the real world. We talk about companies who get it “right” and case studies where people get it wrong.

And sadly, the wrongs are much easier to find.

As I wrote this blog, I tried to find a current statistic to illustrate the low rate of listening in our society. With mask controversies and a recent election, I thought it should be easy to find. (I’ve lost count of the number of posts I’ve seen about mass unfriendings on Facebook. We’re exhausted from the shouting.) Here’s the first thing I found: A Harvard Business Review Article from 1957 about the lack of listening. Wow.

“…the effectiveness of the spoken word hinges not so much on how people talk as on how they listen.” — HBR, 1957

The article goes on to cite studies from Florida State University and Michigan State University about the retention rate of its participants. In just eight hours, half of what they heard had already escaped their memories. And that stat is from over 60 years ago. Today, our attention span is 8 seconds. My hunch is we aren’t heading in the right direction.

In public engagement and everywhere else, listening is key to successful relationships.

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” In other words, both sides must not only listen, but they also must build trust and follow up with action.

Likewise, successful public engagement requires strong, authentic listening skills. According to psychology professor Faye Doell, it’s what makes the difference between “listening to understand” and “listening to respond.” Simply listening to respond doesn’t provide the hallmarks of a successful relationship. It’s just the premise for a verbal game of ping pong.

“Be as passionate about listening as you are about wanting to be heard.” – Brené Brown

Sometimes I think the fear people have in listening is the implication that it means they agree. That’s wrong. The reality is we need different viewpoints, experiences and backgrounds to break down the implicit biases we all possess. Unlike the world in 1957, we can easily unfollow the media that rub us the wrong way, defriend the people who challenge us and passive-aggressively comment from behind a keyboard. In my opinion, the ease with which we can dismiss others is damaging to the future of public engagement.

Whether you are a government agency, Fortune 500 company or a small business, you have a set of publics who are critical to your success. Their beliefs and values are diverse, and their trust in you can make or break the success of your organization. Take the time to truly listen to what they have to say. It could be a gamechanger.