In Praise of Public Listening

I’m not always the best listener.

This stems partially from growing up in a family where communication took the form of overlapping conversations taking place and free reign people had in interrupting or talking over one another. My norms may have been set up to not always listen well, but I think what took me off the listening path also came from other places.


In my goal to connect in meaningful ways with others I seek out context, commonality and usefulness.

  • My desire for context meansI often ask a question in midstream to better grasp what a person is saying. I seek to drill down and get enough information to fully understand what isbeing said.
  • I often find that people feel isolated or disconnected so I seek ways to share the commonality of experience.
  • I love to iterate on ideas that people have with a goal of being useful to them. I want to play with the concepts they are working on in conversations and share people or processes that might be useful in this moment.

The intent of none of these things is wrong. However, left unchecked they can get in the way of meaningfully listening and learning. They can turn you into a bad public listener. It’s about intent versus impact!

Why does listening matter so much?

  • A presentation isn’t a lecture. You will be expected to engage at some point with the material and listening is how you set yourself up for success. So no texting or aimless web surfing. Be present and engaged.
  • You waste  an opportunity to learn. You have the chance to grow your understanding on a topic and perhaps to ask smart questions that increase your learning. Often meetings are a great place to get useful feedback on ideas of concepts upon which you’ve been ruminating. 
  • You lose the crowd. People make assessments of your collegiality based on meetings and may prefer not to partner with you or offer opportunities in the future. Also, the person or people who feel that you didn’t fully engage when they last spoke may seek to give the same treatment when it is your opportunity or responsibility to be in front of the room in the future.

How do you become a better public listener? I think that most of us have the intent to be good public listeners, and perhaps assume that we are. The path to becoming better is paved by doing the following:

Decide to have an intention to improve. Decide for yourself that this is important enough that you want to dedicate time to it. Perhaps make it one of your professional goals the next time you have to jot such a thing down for work, or do so for yourself.

Ask people for feedback when you see them. Ask current or former colleagues if they have noticed how you show up at group meetings. Do they have any sense of your overall engagement? What do they think about the questions you ask or suggestions you make?

Ask people for feedback after a meeting or series of meetings. If you have a regular staff meeting, ask a person you trust to help you in your effort to be a better listener by noticing what you do or say over the course of the next few weeks.

Visual cues. For a while I had a few notes scattered around that had “Listen” written on them. Often, I would see these before I was about to say something which was just enough time to allow someone else to chime in.

Remember the worst listener you’ve ever met. I’ve a colleague with a deadly reputation for being an awful listener. No one has brought it up to them because they know that they couldn’t hear it. Whenever I am in a meeting with them and their colleagues it is painful how more junior staff members are treated and how their voice steamrolls everyone else. I don’t want to be that person and thinking of them keeps me on the road to being a better public listener.

I’ve always been a fan of the Epictetus quote, ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’. Hopefully, you will use those two ears to become a better colleague.

Russ Finkelstein [] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.





Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market