Last week, I was at dinner with a number of accomplished people, including a gentleman with an incredible amount of experience in government relations / lobbying / public policy advocacy / whatever term you want to call it.
In university, I studied public policy and did a major research project on public opinion towards lobbying (examining how people’s attitudes on the subject changed depending on what it is called, in fact). Naturally, I was interested in learning more about the activity from him.
He said charities are often guilty of the same bad government relations practices as businesses.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He leaned in close and said he was going to reveal the secret to successful government relations. I was surprised at getting this information so easily, like manna from heaven.
“Listen,” he said.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.
The more I thought about this conversation, the more I realized this man was on to something profound, not only for government relations, but for marketing and communications, too.
Getting listening wrong…
Listening is hard, because:
- it doesn’t seem to get results or achieve a clear goal; it seems passive rather than active
- it requires humility, because listening is acknowledging there is something to be learned, and that we may not have all the answers or fully understand the situation
- it takes time
Many businesses claim to listen, but don’t. After renting a van earlier this the month, the rental company called me to ask if I was satisfied with my experience renting from them. I answered that I wasn't.
The guy who called me thanked me for my time and hung up. He didn’t ask me why I wasn't satisfied with my rental, a missed opportunity to learn what had specifically gone awry to make me unenthusiastic.
After the call, I was more irritated than I would have been if I hadn’t been called at all. The company paid lip service to the idea of listening, but when it came down to it, it wasn’t interested in listening at all.
Don’t pretend to listen to someone when you're really not.
… and getting it right
When done right, listening helps you to:
- learn and challenge your preconceptions about a situation
- build relationships, by showing the other person you value what they have to say
- communicate in a way that connects with your audience, by understanding what ideas and language resonate with them. It helps you strip out jargon (which is something you want to lose, trust me)
As it happens, learning, building relationships, and speaking the same language as your audience are at the core of marketing and communications.
Despite marketing and communications’ reputation as a one-way flow of information, successful communicators know they need to listen. As a writer, I can’t write about a topic without first seeking to understand it.
I’m developing a new service (teaser! watch this space!) and have been asking people for their thoughts on it. I’ve found a happy by-product is that by asking someone for their opinion, I’ve strengthened my relationship with them.
Listening pays off in ways you don't always expect.
No matter what you do, effective listening is a good thing. Here are a few examples.
- an event planner listens to attendees to craft a special event that meets their needs
- a business owner listens to her clients and learns of an unmet need she can develop a product for, making for happier clients and a more profitable business
- a charity listens to the people they serve, coming to realize a program they run isn’t what these people need, and diverts their resources to a better program.
As I said earlier, listening isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.
How has listening helped you? Are there other benefits to listening I’ve missed? Leave a comment below.