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Trust and the Art of Listening

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The author Eudora Welty once said, “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on.”

Listening isn’t passive; it’s participation. This notion is particularly critical to business now not only because listening informs decisions, but also because it builds trust, which in turn fuels all manner of progress.

Now is the time for business to redouble its focus on listening and participation, according to the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, because business is at a moment where it can effect positive change. Trust in business has recovered since the 2008 financial crisis, as a result of progress in areas such as transparency and product quality. In contrast, trust in government has plummeted. Seventy-nine percent of respondents believe business should be involved in formulating certain industry regulations, and 84 percent believe that business can pursue its own self-interest while doing good work for society.

This indicates that business has a license to lead that extends beyond its own operations. But to do so, companies must engage with a range of stakeholders, seeking their input and involvement. This engagement begins by listening.

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Over the course of our research, we’ve identified key behaviors that build trust. Since 2008, the behaviors related to engagement, such as “listening to customer needs and feedback” have continued to be be ranked as particularly important when it comes to earning trust.” In contrast, operational excellence and products and services attributes continue to be ranked lower, more along the lines of table stakes.

That’s why the best counsel for newly elected officials or newly appointed CEOs is to gather information and learn from others. Listening tours are invaluable ways to initiate any kind of relationship as one gains far more by starting with the insights from other people than leading with one’s own opinions.

In Singapore the government embarked on a series of national conversations – more than 600 to be exact. Held in person and through social media, the extensive listening forums resulted in clear priorities that citizens shared with their government, helping to inform policy and maintain higher levels of trust in government there.

When it comes to listening, the good news is our social media age gives us more ways to listen than ever before. Yet ironically, the bombardment of big data makes good listening skills even harder than ever to attain. Discerning what really matters and what will really help the decision-making process can be the ultimate skill, which we can begin to hone by following Welty’s lead to make listening a key way to engage.

Matthew Harrington is Edelman’s global chief operating officer.

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