We talk about listening to the social media conversation, so how good are we at listening?

For anyone explaining or advising on how best to operate in a social media enabled world, it is a commonplace now to emphasize the crucial importance of “listening to the conversation”. As just one example among many, Paul Chaney in his book The Digital Handshake: Seven Proven Strategies to Grow Your Business Using Social Media devotes a whole chapter to the topic, under the heading Listening is the New Marketing.

There are more and more tools available to help companies in that listening process. And I’m all for companies making use of those tools.

'Listen' picture by ky olsen, flickr, creative commons But lately I’ve been reflecting on various events in business and politics, locally and globally, that indicate to me that a lot of what we call “listening” offline is less about really trying to understand the other’s viewpoint and more about appearing to listen while waiting to seize the advantage in whatever the issue of the day might be.

Is it possible that our “social media listening” is going to be only as good as our “offline” listening?
And what does that say for our likely success or otherwise?

One of the most effective listeners I have ever met was the late Thomas Leonard, founder of the International Coach Federation, Coachville and the International Association of Coaching, an inspiration and exemplar for many coaches. I saw him in action only once, at a Certified Coach Intensive I attended in Sydney in 2002, an event which was at once illuminating and empowering for me.

Of the many things I learned on that weekend, I believe one of, if not the most important was how essential for a coach is the skill of listening. And I learned this not just from listening to Thomas but from observing him in demonstrations of coaching over those couple of days.

On reflection, I believe that what I found most inspiring was that he showed a quite extraordinary ability to listen not just to what people were saying but, in a sense, to what they weren’t saying. I think of it as listening to the silences.

I was also struck by what Thomas had to say about “inklings”, which he described wonderfully as “a feeling you get in your little toe”. Inklings, he said, are “a higher form of intelligence”.

I believe all masterful coaches and mentors aspire to be great listeners, to hear the “inklings” and to hear what silence tells, as well as what words tell. Just as good parents do, and teachers, employers and managers.

I’m not sure where these ideas to do with “offline” listening and “social media listening” connect, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.
Especially as we talk now in social media discussions about the importance of engagement, which seems to me to presuppose and require some pretty active listening, on a continuing basis.

I’m very interested to know what others think on the subject.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).