Sunday, April 12, 2009

If Everyone is Talking, Then Who Exactly is Listening?

This week was an education for me in more ways than one. I jumped head first into the world of social media, specifically, micro-blogging. Yes, I am officially “face booking” and “twittering”. Experts say that upwards of 208 million people belong to these sites now (April 2009) and they project as many as 1 billion users by 2011. As a twenty year marketing veteran, I admit that I am shamefully behind on this. I am still evaluating the pros and cons of social media, but my immediate observation is that there is an awful lot of talking going on and not a lot of listening.

Our home school lesson on listening couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Being deeply engrossed in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which recounts 50 years of the life of a man with great capacity to influence and persuade others, I wondered what he would think of “social media.” What would Benjamin Franklin tell his son about listening, and what advice would he impart about the role of social media in our 21st century culture?

I believe he might begin by telling his son that “listening” is a precious gift that we give to one another. Think about it… when someone wants to be heard, what they are really craving is significance. For just a moment, they desire the attention and acknowledgment of another human being. When we choose to actively listen, devoting 100% of our focus to another person, a positive exchange begins. And respectively, when someone really hears us, we recognize and appreciate that gift. Before we know it, we are ready to return the favor. This reciprocation can continue ad infinitum and real honest communication takes place. It is the very foundation for genuine and lasting relationships.

Benjamin Franklin might tell his son that active listening requires that one be in an ideal “listening state”. Being angry, impatient, worried, or distracted is not conducive to listening. One must be calm, present and open to really “hear” someone. Therefore, learning to listen means we must first learn to control our emotional state. Someone much wiser than me said “seek first not to be understood, but to understand.” This statement, to me, epitomizes effective listening. It suggests that a better result will be obtained if we silence our mind and open our ears before engaging our mouth. Even when we are in disagreement, we will be better able to manage our state and move to a positive resolution if we follow that advice.

Next, I think Benjamin Franklin might share the idea that listening, like writing is a learned skill which must be practiced regularly in order to gain mastery. Give and take is an essential component of conversation. This is where the nourishment of the soul and strengthening of bonds occur. If you have been caught in a “one sided conversation” with a “listening leach”, I imagine it has left you speechless, empty and unfulfilled. True relationships are founded on give and take, verbal and otherwise.

As humans, we have an inherent need for significance and will go to great lengths to get it. On this crowded but often lonely planet, is it possible that the need for significance is driving the explosion of social media? What are the long term repercussions of a world where so much of our effort is focused on personal branding and so little on authentic listening? Will talking AT each other heal the planet or hurt it?

For me, the jury is still out on the long term consequences of social media. It’s difficult to ignore a potential 1 billion user trend. However, I believe Benjamin Franklin might advise us to partake at our own risk, to maintain a healthy distance, and to allocate the lion’s share of our time and energy to opening our ears and connecting with one anothers’ souls. He would suggest that we aim to build the kind of genuine relationships that can withstand MUCH more than a power outage, computer viruses, and technical difficulties.

What role is social media playing in your life? Is there any genuine listening going on in your circles?


  1. Well, since you asked I'll put in my 2 cents worth.

    I started to Twitter sparingly about a month ago and I'm not sure I like it. (gasp) Can't someone get the answer to the "What are you doing?" question by visiting my blog? After all, blogging allows a whole lot more detail. And showing my twitter comments on my blog seems redundant. No one even needs to join Twitter to read them!

    If it is an instant connection that someone craves, then visit a chatroom or IM with the desired recipient. Or email is still a viable option for someone who is willing to wait for an answer.

    I feel like I read a ton of chatter on Twitter that is absolutely meaningless to me, sort of like the old cb radio craze that I remember from my childhood. There's a whole lot of eavesdropping with the occasional tidbit meant for me directly.

    Either no one's listening, or everyone's listening. I'm not sure I like either alternative.

    Having said that, thanks for following me on Twitter. :)

  2. Hi Karabeth,
    Thanks for reading my blog. I will click on your link and see if I can get to yours.
    I loved your analogy of the twittering craze to the old CB radio craze. Brought back funny memories, but it is so true...either everyone is listening or no one. Either scenario leaves a little to be desired.

    Thanks for following me. Looking forward to seeing your site.