The Importance and Value of Listening

by | Mar 10, 2020

My work, like that of any journalist, has always focussed on telling stories. Usually other people’s stories; giving them a sense of place and context and bringing them to a wider audience. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and interview people around the world, researching articles, books or making TV and radio programmes. Investigating the subject’s social and political background, exploring and describing their geographical location is fascinating, but above all it’s encouraging the expression of personal experience and worldview that I enjoy.

Though I’ll always have a prepared list of questions, based on the research, I’ve found that the most interesting information and insights often come up unexpectedly. So, rather than sticking to my ‘script’, assuming I know what will be in the finished piece, I listen intently for those nuggets that may take the conversation in a new direction.

The importance and value of listening came home to me on my first foreign assignment, to Lebanon in 1986. Or rather it came to me after that assignment had taken a dramatic and unexpected turn – when I’d been kidnapped.

After a few months of solitary confinement – living in an underground limbo land of fear and hope, I was moved to join another hostage, Brian Keenan. We spent four years, 24/7, chained up in tiny cells. Surviving in those extreme circumstances, living in a tightly confined environment and under constant emotional and mental strain was, of course, difficult, sometimes tense.

We were from very different backgrounds; Brian grew up in working-class Belfast during the Troubles. I was a middle-England public schoolboy. Had we met under other, more normal circumstances I doubt we’d have go to know each other.

In captivity we had no choice and also, we knew it was vital to maintain harmony. Inevitably we had different points of view, but rather than arguing to win we came to find in each other a rich resource for emotional support, mental stimulation and entertainment. Despite the bleak scenario, we laughed at and with each other constantly. We became very close friends; a relationship ultimately based on mutual respect.

Many times, Brian would come up with a thought or view that ran quite counter to my assumptions and suddenly we’d be off down a fascinating, unexpected imaginative avenue together. Of course, we had all the time in the world to hear each other out but doing so was a vital lesson for life and especially for my work as a journalist. Listening carefully and respecting the other person’s experience brings a richness and depth. It is by allowing for the unexpected that one really learns.

And it was also important to acknowledge our weaknesses as best we could; pretence didn’t help in that environment.

Listening to and respecting others’ viewpoints and acknowledging where things have gone wrong are things that often seem to be lacking in public life today, in politics at any rate.

Repeatedly stating something as fact, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, seems to convince people in these populist times. But I’m not sure that can last for long, the truth will out, as they say. And I think that the corporate world is moving ahead of politics on this, realising that authenticity and honesty are the most valuable assets an organisation can command.

Nowadays customers and workforce alike need to believe in the company or corporation, to understand where it is going and why – to feel a real connection with and desire to take part in that journey.

Given this, I was fascinated to hear about; the idea of working with businesses on developing and telling a coherent corporate story, really struck a chord.


Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella is an example of a new style of corporate leadership. Since taking over form Steve Ballmer in 2014, he’s changed the corporate culture totally, arguing that the best way to build team loyalty and security lies in letting people feel valued and free to speak out about ideas and their work environment.

Nadella also believes in admitting mistakes and then reviewing what went wrong and then working out a new corporate story that can bring the whole company together and reach out to customers too.

Nadella spoke about his business philosophy with Klaus Schwab at Davos 2020.

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