There’s a Kind of Hush: Active vs Competitive Listening

<can’t hear you dudebro, i’m too busy being f’ing fabulous>

There’s a kind of hush that is becoming extinct. Tell me: when’s the last time you actually listened? Like, sat quietly and engaged fully in someone else without a billion of your own thoughts, comments and stories running through your mind?

I attended a wonderful session at the AFPMA’s conference about storytelling with Laura Packer of Thinkstory. She had participants engage in active listening while we shared stories with each other. The point of the exercise was to shut up for 60 seconds and have someone tell you something. I have to say that, while some of my listening partners were excellent, some of them really, really, REALLY sucked.

Laura introduced us to the idea of competitive listening. We’re all guilty of it. Instead of quieting our minds and actually listening to what someone is saying, we are already a) planning our response b) thinking we already know what is going to be said (and maybe we do) c) keeping track of holes in their story d) thinking they’re full of shit e) wondering what to make for supper f) focusing on their out of place eyebrow hair g) can bees really smell fear? h) “poop” is a funny word. poop. poop. pooooooop. poop. i) etc….

A world over-saturated with useless information being hurled at us only makes us worse. We’ve had to learn to tune out hoards of advertising and other messages begging for us to consume. In the process, we’ve learned to tune out each other. If we struggle to actively listen to those closest to us, how will we foster listening in a profession where a) we want supporters to hear us and b) we do a really crappy job listening to our supporters?

Tools that are meant to be used for engagement are nothing more than platforms for our own grandstanding. We send our supporters newsletters, appeals, reports, and updates that are all about ourselves. I’m not saying this is a reality 100% of the time, but let’s be honest: we all need to hone our listening skills if we want to truly connect and engage.

Roland Barthes said “hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act.” I would like to add that true, active listening is an emotional and intellectual skill that takes time to master. It’s the difference between being able to memorize Shakespeare and being able to compose a sonnet series. We tend to listen for the Cliff Notes edition, seeking useful bits and ammunition, rather than experiencing each other.

Why does any of this matter? Look at your retention rates. They likely leave a lot to be desired. It’s oh-so-sexy to tell stories, and I truly believe stories connect us. We’ve evolved to tell stories. It is in our very bones and marrow to tell each other stories. But the storyteller is just a vehicle. And half (if not more) of the story is the listener. If not for listeners, our earliest stories would not have been handed down. When the listening becomes the teller, a story lives and grows. You want that for your organisation.

First, actively listen. Then, passionately tell.