By the end of this chapter, you should be able to
- Explain the benefits of listening skills for people in business
- Define active listening
- Define rhetorical listening
Active listening is important to your success in establishing and maintaining business relationships. Business communication is a problem-solving activity, and to understand the problem, we need to actively listen. You cannot assess a client’s business plan without listening to their financial goals, sell a computer without listening to what the customer needs from the device, or develop an innovative project without collaborating with colleagues. Listening helps you understand your audience’s needs.
Listening also helps in understanding the social environment of your audience, as an example from Adidas demonstrates.
Adidas, in collaboration with Pharrell Williams, produced a blue sneaker with the word uluntu, meaning “human race” or “community” across the top of the shoe. “Community” was written in the language Xhosa, a language spoken by millions of South Africans. The shoe, however, was not available in the country that inspired the product (Bain, 2021). As Quartz noted in its news summary The Memo,
The Adidas controversy shows that creative industries need to build a checkpoint into their production systems, so that even diverse teams are forced to pause and examine questions of cultural sensitivity. It’s not enough to avoid offensive motifs and stereotypes. Before green-lighting anything, somebody should ask: How can we include the populations from which this idea originates? And how can we respect those cultures by providing due credit and, at the very least, the opportunity to engage with the finished product? (May 26, 2021, 30-second case study section, para. 5)
Writer Marc Bain goes on to discuss corporations’ exploitation of culture and groups for profit. This problem is particularly apparent in the fashion industry. Bain writes, “It’s a common distribution strategy in the sneaker business, where desire for a product tends to rise with its exclusivity, but by not making them available in South Africa, Adidas stumbled onto the wrong side of an issue that has received growing attention in the fashion industry” (Bain, 2021, para. 4). As Bain states, companies should “be more thoughtful in how they take inspiration from a culture. In Adidas’s case, that just means at least giving the community that inspired its sneaker the opportunity to buy it” (2021, para. 7).
Adidas has somewhat corrected the problem by making limited quantities available for purchase online, but the damage caused by a failure to engage in rhetorical listening has been done. Adidas did not listen. They did not “hear” the community from which they borrowed to generate profit.
Listening is a critical aspect of business communication. First, we will look at the characteristics of active listening; then we will look at the additional benefits of rhetorical listening.
As a Forbes article states (Westover, 2020, para. 6), active listening in an organization has positive benefits for companies, for leaders, and for individuals. Active listening
- builds stronger relationships,
- develops greater trust,
- enables more effective team collaborations,
- enhances individual and group decision-making,
- increases productivity through enhanced creativity and innovation.
Active listening requires a shift from your thoughts and behaviours to the words and behaviours of others. A Forbes article on listening defines this skill:
A recent article by Elle Kaplan defined effective listening as “giving your complete, intentional focus to what someone says, rather than what their words literally mean.” Effective listening requires active listening, which the University of the People defines as “a soft skill that directs the focus from what’s in your head to the words coming from the outside. By being able to focus on what another person is saying, you can understand needs and information more accurately.”
In other words, listening is more than just hearing the words someone is saying, but rather impactful active listening is all about understanding the context in which those words are shared, along with other verbal and nonverbal cues, such as voice inflection, tone, facial expressions and body language. When we actively listen, we practice mindfulness, we are present with those around us and we do not allow distractions to take away our focus on the most [important] thing in that moment: seeking understanding, showing compassion and demonstrating empathy. (Westover, 2020, para. 3-4)
Rhetorical listening takes active listening a bit further. This type of listening requires deeply experiencing another person’s perspective. This 14-minute video explains rhetorical listening and the “parallax” view that results:
(Direct link to The Rhetoric of Listening: Taking the Parallax View by Pillow Fort Studios video)
Krista Ratcliffe (2005) argues that rhetorical listening is more than listening: Rhetorical listening is “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (p. xiii). Had Adidas used rhetorical listening, they may have heard their South African audience and marketed their product with cultural sensitivity and respect. They would have increased brand loyalty in Africa and demonstrated ethics rather than exploitation. In communicating in university or the workplace, implement the most important rhetorical strategy: Listen.
Bain, M. (May 23, 2021). Why South Africans are upset Adidas isn’t selling this one shoe to them. Quartz Africa. https://qz.com/africa/2012137/adidass-xhosa-inspired-shoes-werent-released-in-south-africa/?utm_source=email&utm_medium=quartz-at-work&utm_content=b2900732-bd9f-11eb-a953-02b683ea7f4c
The Memo. (May 26, 2021). 30-second case study. Quartz at Work. https://qz.com/emails/quartz-at-work/2013146/
Ratcliffe, K. (2005). Rhetorical listening: Identification, gender, whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press.
Westover, J.H. (August 17, 2020). The power of listening. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/08/17/the-power-of-listening/?sh=274263a016a3