Listening with empathy will be crucial in 2017

What does listening empathetically, in my view crucial for effective comms planning in 2017, really mean?

MediaCom chair Karen Blackett is fond of saying, "You have two ears, but only one mouth. Use them in that proportion".

Of course she’s right. Listening instead of speaking is the first challenge. Many people find it easier to rattle on than to shut up and wait for an answer. We want to fill the silence. Whereas it is in fact a great tactic not to speak. Try this the next time you ask someone a question in an interview. Listen to their answer, then don’t say anything.

Often they will jump to fill the silence, and expand on their first answer with what may be much more interesting, truthful and useful. Even when people stop talking and start listening it is easy to misinterpret what they hear.

Talking on BBC Today Dr Graham Gudgin of Cambridge University suggested the reason that the forecasts for the British Economy on the effect of Brexit were wrong in the short term at least, was that the forecasters were subject to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias happens when we interpret data so that it is compatible with what we want to hear. Gudgin asked the question – if the forecasts had not been the forecasts the government at the time wanted to hear, would they have been published or would the forecasters have kept on going with the analysis?

If you’re reviewing several hours of ad concept research, and the first few results give you the answer you want to hear, are you as thorough with the rest of the data as you would be if your confirmation bias wasn’t satisfied?

Confirmation bias happens when we interpret data so that it is compatible with what we want to hear

So it isn't enough just to listen. You need to listen out for what you don't want to hear. That's where the truth may be. Sometimes though you need to absolutely ignore what is being said.

Years ago I attended several research groups with some middle aged men discussing why they bought cars. The researcher tried time and again to get them to talk about the emotional reasons they went for the cars they’d chosen.

As the hours went by the respondents seemed to become increasingly reluctant to talk about their feelings.  They become more and more aggressive – beginning to take personally any insistence that it couldn’t just be rational reasons that made up their minds about their choices.

When the researcher debriefed the client with the results she didn’t feed them the answer that the respondents had insisted on – that all the decisions were rational and conscious – despite what I had heard in the hours spent in the listening chamber.

She talked instead about the necessity to deliver rational reasons to believe in addition to the emotional cues rather than taking the groups’ answers literally which would have led the brand down a too functional route.

What was going on in that research group was "in-group out-group" bias. Once one of the men in the group talked about how he only made decisions on a rational basis, and this happened every time, then everyone else just went along with it, and in fact reinforced it.

It’s a basic survival instinct honed over thousands of years.  If you’re in the group you survive (especially if there’s predators about). If you’re rejected by the group you die.

In that particular case no-one was prepared to deviate from the alpha male in the group. When the researcher debriefed the client, she used listening with empathy over listening literally. So as well as listening for what you don't want to hear you also need to hear when people are in fact lying – even if it's not on purpose – to hear the real truth.

Listening with empathy – more crucial than ever in 2017. Don't settle for anything else.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom.

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