I’m sure we’ve all been there. In meetings, during arguments, while succumbing to the soothing rhythm of chopping vegetables for dinner or, in my case, standing opposite a four-year-old who feels unheard when her wish for ice-cream after breakfast was declined.
"You’re not listening!"
Sometimes we think it. Sometimes we shout it. Sometimes we don’t even notice it’s happening.
Listening is really hard. It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone. But it’s bloody important. And, in my opinion, it’s the thing that sets great planners apart from other planners. Or goldfish.
The next time you open your mouth, it’s worth remembering that oft-touted fact about the average attention span of a person being shorter than that of a goldfish.
Microsoft in Canada conducted a study that came to this conclusion. In 2000, our attention span was 12 seconds. By 2014, it had been eroded to 8.5 seconds. A goldfish’s attention span is nine seconds.
We tune out before we’ve really tuned in. Even Larry King, the king of chit-chat, acknowledges the power of this invisible and quiet skill: "I remind myself every morning: nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening."
While planners aren’t chat-show hosts like Larry, he has a point that’s relevant to us. A planner’s job is essentially to learn new stuff, make new connections, identify the sub-context of a conversation and read between the lines. It’s hearing combined with the search for meaning or hidden meaning. Listening helps us do all of these things – and more. It helps people open up, feel valued, feel heard, feel at ease, reveal more and be more honest. It helps us get to the bottom of tricky questions.
Yet, it’s still the most undervalued skill of the 21st century. Put differently, it’s the most universal and powerful language nobody has bothered to learn.
We operate in a world – and especially in this industry – where the objective is to get heard. To disrupt and, by consequence, to interrupt. We don’t really listen, because we’re too busy talking. And, let’s be honest, we also perceive it as one of those optional soft skills. A passive personality trait. A low-energy activity.
We worship the high-volume talkers. We are impressed by those whose agenda is delivered forcefully. And we sit through discussions and conversations thinking of a super-clever response, not allowing ourselves time to think or reflect. Sometimes we don’t even let the other person finish.
But listening is far from being a soft, passive, low-energy skill. Baronness Helena Kennedy, barrister extraordinaire from Scotland, once said: "Great listeners use their ears, their eyes, their head. After a day in court, I have listened so hard that I ache."
And that’s a revelation: being a good listener isn’t just about absorbing, it’s about projecting. It’s actively showing people you’ve heard what they’ve said, repeating it back, building on it, challenging it, asking related questions. That’s when great stuff can happen to you and the person who’s talking.
So, planners and non-planners, take this skill to heart. Value it, teach it, encourage it in others. Make it something to be proud of.
It’s easier to learn than Icelandic or ski-jumping. And it’s much more useful.
Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA\London