The recent report about the backlash of United Airlines employees teaches an important lesson about listening. On the one hand, United could be said to have listened adequately to employee opinion and thus changed course on an unpopular and perhaps detrimental company policy. This type of retroactive listening is indeed vital to company success. Organizations, be they for profit, not-for-profit, governmental, public, private, or somewhere else in the spectrum, can powerfully demonstrate attentiveness, caring, empathy, openness, responsiveness, understanding, and other important attributes by listening to public opinion and changing course.
On the other hand, the United Airlines story teaches the need for a more proactive style of listening, what we might call a need to Listen First. A more proactive attitudes toward listening involves gathering various opinions prior to a decision - and not just "what do you think about this policy we plan to implement" but, rather, a true openness to crafting company policy around the needs of those you serve. Examples abound, but recently there have been a host of "listening tours" by politicians and other public figures that serve as a viable model, assuming the intention is to actually attempt to understand than to persuade. When listening to understand, organizations suspend their own agenda, seeking to align their purpose with, to use a term from journalism, the common good.
Putting the principles of listening into practice is not terribly complex, and yet how many of us truly focus on trying to get better at this important skill every day? How many of our businesses are truly designed to start with listening and continue its employment in all our endeavors? To Listen First starts with a shift in mindset and continues with daily development and re-commitment. What would you need to understand to start implementing such a mindset today?