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“Public listening” is at least as valuable as public speaking


By Irshad Manji

Why is there a leadership skill called “public speaking” but no corresponding skill called “public listening”? 🧐


To my mind, public listening means inviting people to share stories, views, and questions from which we can learn.


When I was a presenter at Toronto’s most-watched news channel in the ‘90s, I proposed this idea to my boss: Let me pick a random name from the city phone book, show up at that person’s door and invite them to tell me their story. They’d already know my face from TV, so they’d trust me enough to let me in.


I’d ask a few questions about their life’s journey, film the conversation myself (no intrusive, intimidating camera crew) and edit it into a 90-second segment for the evening news.


The point? You don’t need fame or a title to be worthy of getting heard. Each of us has a fascinating backstory if only more of us are curious enough to wonder about it. Plus, imagine the anticipation of the viewing public! “Whose doorbell will ring next? Maybe mine?…”


My boss shot the idea down.


Now for my latest foray into public listening: Last year, I received brutal feedback about a workshop that I delivered. In the past, it delighted many audiences. Not this one. With caustic adjectives, participants complained about my style and choices, including the real-world stories that I shared.


Even though the feedback felt cruel, it contained some valid points. So I met with the People Ops director to say that, thanks to this wake-up call, I’m improving the workshop. I also offered sincere gratitude. These comments were such a gift, I told her, that as I decide on my year-end giving, her nonprofit organization can expect a contribution from me.


Public listening requires ceding immediate control, and I suspect that’s why we don’t promote it (let alone practice it). Still, it’s a great investment in creativity. Malcolm Gladwell has acknowledged that he gets his best ideas by calling people up and talking to them. Just talking to them.


Of course, that’s different from opening your heart to arrows.  Want to become a star at public listening — someone who can hear diverse viewpoints and learn from them? Check out the Moral Courage online course. K12 educators: enroll in this version of the course, which features a lesson plan.

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