Girl listening to birdIt occurred to me recently as I was settling in for my fourth meeting of the week with a former student (not the same one four times, I hasten to add!) that somehow I’ve gotten pretty good at one of the key skills of a public relations professional…listening.

Image: State Library Queensland via Flickr, CC 2.0

I suppose I’ve always been okay at this, but I used to feel the need to always interject my own opinions…even when not solicited…into the conversation.

I’m sure someone reading this will mutter, “Well, you idiot, that’s what PR people are supposed to do!” And he or she will be right, to a degree.

We are supposed to have and to express our opinions as we help guide clients or employers along the way.

But, sometimes, we need to be able to simply sit and listen. Let the other party sort out his or her problem.

Wise public relations counsel, to me, is about developing and nurturing meaningful mutual understanding among all concerned parties. This, in my mind, implies empowering the other side to form ideas and opinions that will, in turn, foster continued and improved communication.

This doesn’t mean sitting like the Sphinx with no sign of life on your side of the table.

It does mean, though, willing yourself to remain a silent observer, taking in the other side’s thoughts, and asking relatively simple questions like “Why?” or “What do you think you should do?”

Effective public relations counsel is, according to Edward L. Bernays in his 1961 book Your Career in Public Relations, a matter of achieving “…willing cooperation. How can you get the client to accept a point of view that was not his to start with?”

And this implies/requires employing effective listening skills. It isn’t “rocket science,” but it is “relational science.” It’s achieving that level of empathy and understanding that tells the other party that you hear and you care.

As “Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved” asks in Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet”:

“People of Orphalese, of what can I speak save of that which is even now moving within your souls?”

That is the power of listening.

The ability and the willingness to take others’ opinions and ideas into consideration. What we don’t want is to have our client or employer say, as did the Captain to Luke in “Cool Hand Luke”:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

It all starts and ends with listening.

Kirk Hazlett

Kirk Hazlett

Professor at Curry College
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, holds the position of Associate Professor, Communication/ Public Relations, at Curry College. He also is a member of the Public Relations Society of America's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. Kirk has 35+ years' federal government and nonprofit organization PR experience, followed by nearly 10 years' undergraduate- and graduate-level college teaching experience. Some of the organizations he has counseled include the Blood Bank of Hawaii, Medical Area Service Corporation and Boston Harborfest. He blogs at A Professor's Thoughts.
Kirk Hazlett