When we talk about skills necessary for a communicator or PR practitioner, typically we get a list that includes items like: must be an excellent writer, able to communicate well through writing and speaking, strong research skills, creativity, and adept at social media. Rarely do we see “strong listening skills” listed as a must-have, and yet being a good listener is critical to being a good communicator.
Virtually every aspect of being a communicator demands good listening skills.
You cannot solve a client problem without listening to find out what they believe the problem is.
You cannot design a measurement program without listening to what the client’s goals are.
You cannot develop good PR strategies without listening to what people want and need.
You cannot map out public affairs tactics unless you listen to what the client’s legislative objectives are.
You cannot report results to a client without listening to their target audiences.
And so on.
Listening is baked into the core of what PR is, and yet it is rarely, if ever, highlighted as a skill—and no one ever suggests working on building that skill. We’re more than happy to send people to classes to improve their social media prowess, or improve writing, or learn how to measure—but I’ve never seen a program to improve listening habits.
This is unfortunate, because it’s such a critical skill. And a lot of people just aren’t very good at it.
So, how can communicators work on becoming better listeners?
There’s a lot of advice out there on listening, much of it focused on being a better partner in a relationship—and a surprising amount of it is applicable to a workplace setting too. Here are some suggestions to build your listening skills:
Stop focusing on what you’ll say next.
This is a big one, and it takes a lot of practice to break this habit, but it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll become a better listener if you address and break this tendency. We all do it to some degree, because it keeps conversation flowing. However, if you are planning your next exchange, you are focusing on addressing only the initial portion of what the speaker is conveying. Similar to multitasking, if you are doing two things at once (listening and planning what you’ll say) you aren’t doing either one with your full attention. This means you will miss things.
Wait until the other person is done before you start to respond.
This is a fairly simple one, and it’s important. It can be tempting to interject something before the talker is finished, especially if you are engaged and interested—this is likely to be the case when discussing things with clients—you hopefully are interested in what the client is saying or proposing. But cutting in before a speaker has finished a comment means that their thoughts or flow are interrupted, and could lead to not all information being properly or completely conveyed. This is where misunderstandings crop up, so put your response on pause, wait until they are done, and then speak.
Summarize, and/or ask questions.
Part of the art of active listening is the ability to participate in the reinforcement of what the speaker is saying. This is done through summary responses—where after the person is done conveying a comment—the listener repeats back to the speaker their understanding of what was just said. Asking relevant questions also does this. By fleshing out a statement by asking related questions, you are adding more layers of understanding, which will help both for retaining the information, and really absorbing what was conveyed.
It can be particularly challenging to listen carefully when you are trying to “sell” someone on something—whether that’s selling them on a new idea, like convincing a client they need to be measuring, or if you’re pitching new business. These are the most important times to listen closely, because if you do, you’re better able to understand resistance and obstacles. If you better understand resistance and obstacles, you’ll be able to provide the right answers or reasons to overcome that resistance—and those obstacles.