What did you say again? The lost art of listening

It's been three months now since the result of the EU referendum, the vote that seemed to take many of us by surprise. Might the result have been different had we - business, politicians and media - been listening to our local communities?

What did you say again? The lost art of listening

Maybe not, but perhaps it might not have been the shock to the system that it was.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of listening these past few months. If we can get it so monumentally wrong at a national level so as to be quite so surprised by a referendum vote, where else are our collective listening skills letting us down?  

I doubt you’d be able to find an annual or CRS report or that didn’t include a line about the importance of engaging and listening to stakeholders, but as a business community, are we any good at it?

A detailed study by the University of Technology in Sydney last year found that amongst the large public and private sector organisations they studied in the UK, US and Australia, on average, 80% of their communication resources and systems were focused on distributing the organisations’ messages – i.e. speaking, and by default, only 20% on listening.

At one of the Institute’s recent hub events on reputational risk, we discussed the gap between company and public perceptions. Comparing industry data with that from the Institute of Business Ethics, it was clear that those issues companies felt were important to the public were not the issues the public choose for themselves, suggesting that organisations may be getting it wrong when it comes to understanding their stakeholders.

If we’re to really engage our stakeholders, if we are genuinely interested in making sure that our strategies and policies take account of their voices, we need better ways of listening to – and hearing – what they have to say.

Working with local communities on a major development in a previous role, I was given a crash course in the need for active listening skills early on in my career and it’s something I make a point of practicing on a daily basis. 

As a skill, I can’t think of anything more fundamentally important and yet it gets scant attention, even on courses in communication.  

These are undoubtedly interesting times, and now, perhaps more than ever,  we all need to listen – and really hear – the voices around us.  If we don’t there will no doubt be even more surprises to come.

Claudine Blamey is chair of ICRS.

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