Are you listening?


If you are passionate about your business, it’s very tempting to talk about it at every possible opportunity as you want the world to know about it. Even when there are no speaking opportunities, you may write blog posts and social media updates about the company, about your latest projects, about your products and services… It’s important to remember, though, that communication is not a monologue.

Many of the articles here on the Tantamount website are about communicating brand values and business messages through words and images ­– about the things we say and write, the texts and visuals that businesses include on websites and in printed collateral: they focus on the active production of content.

There’s another side to things, though: we all love to talk about ourselves, but sometimes it’s important to let someone else have the floor. And if you want your business to communicate well, you need to listen to your clients and hear what they have to say.

When we go to networking events and everyone gets their “60 seconds”, how often do we actually listen to what’s being said? If we’re honest, we’ll admit that all too often we are more concerned with checking our own notes, thinking about how we’re going to negotiate the room to get to where we’re going to stand, and trying to remember what we’re going to say when we get there.

Even when we do latch on to a phrase from someone else’s pitch, it’s usually just so we can give our own talk a quick twist and make it sound as if we were paying attention. Here, as in most situations, the tendency is to listen in order to respond, not in an attempt to understand.

Active listening

Because of the way English speech is constructed, including the way the language uses rhythm and stress, even professional speakers tend not to enunciate each word clearly. This becomes clear if you try to transcribe song lyrics or even a news piece from the BBC: the pronunciation and clarity of a word depends on the context and surrounding discourse and it’s frequently impossible to distinguish each word separately.

This means that if we want to understand and grasp the complete message, we need to pay attention – to listen actively, not passively. Even when you are listening as part of an audience rather than participating in a private conversation, speaker and listener work together to construct meaning; and if you, the listener, don’t play your part, the intended meaning may be lost or misunderstood.

In addition, the spoken message isn’t just about the words that are used, but also about the tone, the pitch, the pacing, etc. Sometimes, too, the most important information is what is left unsaid.

When it comes to business communications, it’s vital to remember that you are engaged in a dialogue: it isn’t just about getting your message out there. Communication is a two-way street and anyone who wants to run a successful business needs to be prepared to listen to their clients, their suppliers and other stakeholders. It’s been said that the most interesting person in the room is the one who listens to you.

The importance of questions

So as well as supplementing the information we hear and filling in the blanks with our own knowledge of grammar and our understanding of the subject and the context, we may need to clarify by asking questions. And asking the right questions to get the information we need can be quite a skill. To begin with, it’s important to recognise what information you are trying to ascertain and guide the other person to provide the answer you want or need.

Essentially, you can ask open questions, beginning with one of the question words – who, what, where, how, when, which – and allow the other person to answer exactly as they please. Or you can ask closed questions, starting with a phrase such as “Do you…” or Have you…”, which limits the answer to “yes” or “no” and allows you to keep much closer control of the conversation.

Closed questions can be particularly useful if you don’t understand a subject and want to make sure the conversation covers the information one step at a time. Used well, they can keep an expert reined in rather than letting them head off enthusiastically into technical or specialist areas beyond the comprehension of the listener. But, by their very nature, closed questions force the conversation along a certain route. By limiting the possible answers, you may miss out on interesting – and useful – information simply because you are unaware of it and so don’t guide the conversation in that direction. If you want to learn what the speaker knows or how they feel about something, it’s important to give them space to express themselves.

You have two ears and one mouth. Are you talking or are you listening?

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk.
― Doug Larson

We like to talk about Tantamount, but we’d also love to hear about your business and your communications challenges, so why not give us a call on 0798 661 3437 and let’s have a chat.