The Importance of Listening, Particularly During Crises

"To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning."

— Peter Michael Senge (born 1947), an American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

As Peter Senge has wonderfully put it, listening deeply enables an organization to learn more about its environment and the people around it. Listening is and will always be an important part of the work of any organization. 

We voice our thoughts, our hopes and opinions at social gatherings, town halls and coffee shops. Opinions of the public are also often gathered through polls and surveys. As technology evolves, opportunities for listening continue to increase. Come DARPA[1] and the introduction of the Internet, voices started coming out through the bulletin board system (BBS) of yore, the Usenet groups, network news transfer protocol (NNTP) groups and blogs. Now, we have Facebook, Twitter, and comments following articles on various news sites and blogs.  In addition to the coffee shops, town halls and our social gatherings, we now have many more places to voice out our opinions and thoughts. This also creates many opportunities for an organization to listen and to learn about itself and the world around it. 

Listen carefully and one would hear about the things that make people happy, angry, sad, indignant and excited. When soccer is in season, we would shout with joy when our favourite team wins or gripe about our team's latest loss. A lot of us are excited about the latest phone launch - how much, any new features? We get indignant when we hear about some of the cruel acts, like the poor puppy that was put to sleep. Are there new inconveniences to our daily life? What are our worries, for our children, for our future? What can be done better? Are there rumours and misperceptions out there in the public domain? Can these be clarified with better explanations? Can policies be adjusted to make them better? Are new policies required? 

Listening to the voices from the public in physical meetings, surveys, polls and in chat rooms and social media is useful. (1) In the strategic sense for planning purposes to enable better policies to better the lives of the citizens as well as, (2) At the people to people level, to ensure that erroneous information, rumours and misperceptions are addressed and clarified.

Listening At The Strategic Level

A survey with over 4,000 respondents was conducted by the “Our Singapore Conversation (OSC[2])” team to supplement what they were already hearing from Singaporeans at dialogues and online. Conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS[3]) in conjunction with the OSC Secretariat, the survey aimed to get a snapshot of Singaporeans' priorities, values and preferences. Housing, healthcare and job security were among the top areas that Singaporeans hoped to see addressed and they were also the same topics which resulted in passionate discussions at OSC dialogues. As Acting Minister for Manpower, Mr Tan Chuan Jin, aptly put it during OSC, "in terms of an approach to gathering perspectives and conversing, it has been most helpful. Not just for us, but for Singaporeans to listen to each other. We have been making a number of changes to our policies in the last few years and a number of inputs have come from focus groups and discussions, along with feedback sent in."

Listening - People to People 

In June 2013, fires in Indonesia led to pollution in Singapore before rain, fire-fighting efforts and winds gave the nation some respite. The haze in Singapore reached unprecedented levels, with the three-hourly Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting a record 401 on 21 June (air becomes hazardous when the index crosses 300).

 

(Source: BBC News - “Singapore haze hits records high from Indonesia fires” - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22998592)

There was concern, with the level of Internet chatter very high as citizens voiced their concerns over the air quality and sought the availability of N95 masks at the shops and elsewhere. While we listened to the concerns and the views expressed, efforts were made to ensure that the public were kept informed of the situation and assured that masks were being made available.

With the high level of chatter, rumours and erroneous information also began to emerge. For example, on 25 June, online rumours emerged that hailstones came about as a result of acid rain and cloud seeding; this was not true and was quickly clarified. Similarly, it was said that the Government was profiteering from the sales of N95 masks, The Government quickly clarified this erroneous perception to state that "To date (In June), a total of 4.15 million N95 masks have been released from MOH’s stockpile: 3.15 million to retailers and 1 million to the People’s Association for distribution to low-income families. The cost of the masks, including transport and storage, is recovered from the retailers."

Listening helped the Government respond well with the required information, as well as quickly clarifying rumours before they led to unwarranted worry and concern. 

Why Should We Listen?

When we listen, in the coffee shops, at dialogues or on social media, we hear the perceptions about our organizations and how people feel about us. This brings about opportunities to clarify the facts and improve the quality of information. Listening also enables an organization to discover opportunities for improving itself.

We learn new things every day. There is a wealth of ideas out there where we can improve ourselves and the world around us.

"I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening."

— Larry King

       By TAN Wei Yi, Director, Media Operations, Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore


[1] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - http://www.darpa.mil/About/History/History.aspx

[2] Our Singapore Conversations (OSC) - http://www.reach.gov.sg/Microsite/osc/index.html

[3] Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) - http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg

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