Listening - especially to your critics - is the key to learning

In the question-and-answer portion of a talk I gave a week ago, a member of the audience asked me what I'd do if I were given Karen Hughes' job at the US State Department.

In the question-and-answer portion of a talk I gave a week ago, a member of the audience asked me what I'd do if I were given Karen Hughes' job at the US State Department.

Hughes, you probably know, has the difficult PR job of improving America's image abroad, specifically in the Middle East.

For starters, I said, I'd do some serious listening.

You don't have to travel abroad as much as I do to know that people in other countries look askance at the US; given some of our current policies and actions I understand their angst. I spend a fair amount of time defending the nation of my birth and explaining why I still believe in it. I always try to listen hard, though, when people launch into critiques or outright tirades.

The same applies to my work, which frequently comes under the scrutiny from people who suspect I'm missing crucial information or are absolutely certain I'm an idiot. However unpleasant it may be to hear such things, and however confident I may be of my facts and beliefs, I remember something even more crucial: We can all learn more from people who think we're wrong than from people who think we're right. This is true for me, true for leaders, and true for companies.

In my years as a professional journalist, I realized that many of them are great at listening - but mostly to the people they choose to pay attention to, such as sources and public officials. We journalists love the readers, plural, but are a bit standoffish with the individual reader.

This is natural to some extent. Attention is a precious commodity, and opening our ears to everyone can be time-consuming, even time-wasting.

This is true for all kinds of enterprises. Most are institutionally hard of hearing in the most fundamental sense, sometimes for reasons that feel sensible, but which in the end can be counterproductive.

But obtuseness bordering on deliberate deafness no longer cuts it in a conversational world. Institutional listening powers are a requirement, not an option.

I respect businesses that create genuine conversation spaces. They use technologies and techniques that spark the kind of dialogue that, however disconcerting it can be from time to time, informs insiders and outsiders of essential facts and opinions.

Comment sections on blogs, discussion boards, and other online media can be more than disconcerting. They can be downright outrageous, often populated as much with uninformed diatribes as useful feedback.

I advise other readers of such forums to discount anonymous bad-mouthing - to assume that people who won't stand behind their words are less likely to be honest. But when they're about me, I always check to see if there's a germ (or more) of reality in the rant. Once in a while there is, and I'd rather know about it, so I can do a better job.

Even your harshest, most unfair critic can make a decent point. This is difficult to admit, but sometimes it's true.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (

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