“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
When I was 19, home for summer break from college, my dad gave me a copy of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you haven’t read it or can’t guess from the title what it’s about, the book outlines seven habits that help a person lead an effective life. One part I tend to re-read is Habit 5, which is the art of listening to understand. I read it often because like many people, listening completely is not one of my innate strengths. I am frequently guilty of listening only for what I want to hear, or listening only for an opportunity to make my next point, rather than listening to understand what’s being communicated.
To illustrate, let me share a story. Last week, in the chaos of rushing the kids out the door to school (late), my daughter Grace asked if it was okay for her to put her giant backpack into the back of our SUV. “Sure, toss it back there and hop in, kiddo. We’re late!” She opened the back, deposited the bag, and dutifully hopped into her seat in the car. “All set Mom,” she said, as she fastened her seat belt. I heard exactly what I wanted to: we were clear for takeoff.
I backed out of the garage, mentally ticking through my to-do list while answering a question about three-year-old Will’s new teacher – activities that were abruptly ended by a loud, ripping crack as the open tailgate of the car crashed into the garage door. When Grace said “All set, Mom” what she meant was, she was ready to go. She’s nine. She’s not tall enough to shut the back door. If I had been really listening to her in that moment, I would have avoided the hours, money and headache expended to repair the car. (And yes: I am aware that checking the rear-view mirror before backing out might also have averted the incident, but that doesn’t help me make the point I’m going for here.)
In public relations, as in life, good listening is essential to effectiveness, and to avoiding headaches. The practice of thoughtful, results-oriented PR requires careful and empathetic listening – to clients, to reporters, to analysts, to customers, to competitors. Taking time to understand the audience you’re engaging is crucial to connecting, and connecting is the key to sharing information and gaining credibility.
I’m not unique in suggesting that listening is crucial to PR, there have been and – I hope – will continue to be many articles written about the importance of listening in our field. Further, the advent and adoption of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook forces companies and PR professionals listen to their stakeholders in a whole new way – as Eric Qualman, author of Socialnomics says, “…it’s about listening first, selling second.”
Truly listening as part of the way we communicate is the best way to achieve the results our clients expect, whether we’re creating a spot-on positioning platform for a technology company, or generating excitement about a new brand of body wash, or finding just the right story angle to help illustrate a key value of a client.
After the garage door incident, I re-read the key points of Habit 5 and resolved to listen better, in each moment, whether at work or at home. Oh, and I’ll also be sure to check the rearview mirror before backing out of the garage.