Stop talking and start listening

About the author

Heather is a key member of our assessor team. PhD, BSc, PG, RSA, CAM  

Why should you stop talking and start listening?

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…” If you are of a certain age and background, you’ll recognise this opening from a BBC radio programme called “Listen with Mother” that was broadcast between 1950 and 1983.

Back then, it was thought that children should be seen and not heard. They were expected to be quiet and well behaved.

Perhaps the same message should be conveyed to organisations, based on the results of an extensive international study: “Creating an ‘Architecture of Listening’ in Organisations”

Up to 95% of all internal and external organisational communications involves talking at, not with people, according to the study’s findings. This one-way approach of disseminating information also applies to social media, despite its potential to allow for dialogue.

Where research and consultations are employed, the study finds the purpose is primarily instrumental. That is, organisations are using feedback in order to influence others or to gain evidence to support particular positions, not to learn or understand. Further, those who are listened to are often elites such as media or politicians.

The impression that most people gain, therefore, is that organisations don’t seem to care or value what they really think. Like an encounter with a chatty toddler who never stops talking, it’s no wonder that people end up ignoring organisations or wishing they’d just shut up and listen.

Australian academic, Jim Macnamara, who is currently in the UK, led the original research team. He is now working on a follow up active research project with UK government communicators.

He shared some insight from his work at a special evening lecture for students at London College of Communications. An invitation was kindly extended to PR Academy tutors and students. So I went along and took my friend, Ruth Sparkes, Director of the successful public relations consultancy EMPRA, for a real world perspective on “The Lost Art of Listening”.

I’ve always felt that the focus in public relations on writing, and more recently on producing multimedia content, misses out on Steven Covey’s Habit #5: Seek first to Understand. This is one reason why I encouraged the inclusion of listening in the syllabus for the new CIPR Professional Diploma qualification – and I’ve written a short chapter on Listening and Dialogue for PR Academy’s PR Reader.

What I found fascinating in Jim’s work was the emphasis on how organisations can design listening into their culture, policies and practices. This involves both training and technology, but most importantly, a commitment to take note of the numerous ways in which publics let organisations know what they think.

Qualitative research and analysis is the key here to understanding why people take the time to communicate and what they have to say. This also avoids the false reality that emerges with increasing frequency from public opinion surveys.

It is the same argument being made for the value of human journalists and editors to manage the quality of online news rather than the click-bait content favoured by algorithms.

It is great to see research that is informed by scholarship being used to challenge existing communications practice in a positive way. Even more importantly, Jim is fulfilling an academic in practice role with government communicators as co-researchers in the new research. This will undoubtedly lead to further sharing of findings in academic papers and other published work that is accessible and able to inform organisational communications in a transformative way.

So what did Ruth think?

“Being a practitioner and an agency owner, I wouldn’t have usually spent the evening listening to an university lecture. However I thoroughly enjoyed Jim’s talk. The Seven Canons particularly resonated with me, it served as a gentile reminder that there’s always room for improvement – being better people will make us better PRs.”

The Seven Canons show respect for others in the communicative process through a process of:

  1. Recognition
  2. Acknowledgement
  3. Attention
  4. Interpreting
  5. Understanding
  6. Consideration
  7. Response

Learn more…….

You can find slides and a podcast by Jim Macnamara on this work via: