September 2010
Listening — A Way of Being in Business

So much in our culture of business communication is weighted toward what businesses say. Little text seems devoted to how businesses listen. I mean, really listens.

How do businesses learn to listen to their customers’ needs?

Listening requires something more than hearing. That’s the point in weighty and insightful work that I recommend: The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening by Gemma Corradi Fiumara.

Fiumar points out that “we inhabit a culture that knows how to speak, but not how to listen; so we mistake warring monlogues for genuine dialogue.”

Peter Drucker often pressed business leaders to understand what their customer was buying. Invariably, Drucker observed, the answer diverged significantly from what the company was selling.

In the old days, we relied on focus groups. And customer surveys. That was how business heard, at least, what its customers were saying. User rated sites like Yelp and Angies’ List are bringing businesses to listen more to their customers’ needs, often because their future customers are reading these sites. So, business has had to wake up.

But I think we have a ways to go to orient business toward a culture of listening. How do we teach listening to all of our team? How do we learn to ask questions that enable us to know our customers more deeply?

I propose the place to start is how we listen to ourselves and to the needs of our people inside our own companies. A culture of listening starts at home, and grows out from there. Oddly, the deeper we learn to listen within ourselves; the larger we are to listen to others. Listening then becomes a habit, but more than a habit: a way of being.