Active listening: Don’t be creepy

Active listening mind map
What do I mean when I say active listening?  I have been using this phrase a lot recently and it has also crept into use within NHS Citizen without being properly grounded with a definition as to how I am using it.  This is an attempt to do provide one.
Active listening is a phrase that is used in an offline context to refer to a technique where communication is reinforced with the listener ‘playing back’ what they have heard in order to confirm that they have properly comprehended what has been said.  Its a powerful technique that can take time but really helps to build deeper understanding between people and groups.  There is obviously a lot more to it than that in terms of listening to non-verbal cues, internalising and reflecting on what you have heard as well as how you manage the emotional context but the real essence, for me, is that is emphasises the need to ensure that you have really understood what is being said to you.
This is important not only in terms of how it makes the person you are listening to feel but also in terms of making sure that you are are creating effective communication which requires that both parties end the communication transaction with as close to a common understanding of what was discussed as is possible (this is based on Searle’s work on speech acts if you are into your philosophy of language).
Active listening online
Social media provides us with the opportunity to listen on a wide scale to what people are saying and indeed when we look at this as individuals this is exactly what social media is – a “networked public” space (here is a link to a paper by danah boyd who coined this phrase) where we can tune into and listen to many different voices and conversations.  Organisations are not individuals however and I would argue that unless we explore how to transform this into a two way process wide scale organisation listening is best described as surveillance rather than being an act of communication or engagement.
The phrase active listening in this context therefore expresses the need to ensure that the speaker (or writer) is aware that they are being listened to (something which is assumed with face to face communication) and have chance to confirm that the correct meaning has been inferred as is the case with physical active listening.   Active listening could be made up of:
  • A research ethics approach which ensures that data collected cannot be used to draw conclusions without informing the content originator
  • That the content creator is given the opportunity to confirm/amend any conclusions drawn from what has been ‘heard’ by the listener
What might this look like in practical terms?
  • Being transparent with what is being ‘heard’ via various social media monitoring tools and feeding this back to the spaces where it has been gathered from
  • Being proactive in terms of contacting groups and individuals who are being found as part of this process
  • Ensuring that you have an opt out for people who do not want to be listened to in this way
  • A set of protocols for approaching people who have been found as part of this process
I am proposing active listening to support  better communication and also as a starting point for relationship and community building online.  Put another way its intended to bridge the gap caused by the usual lines drawn between communication and engagement.
Active listening is also intended to strike a balance between the obvious advantages of a networked public with respect to understanding public feeling and the need to gain real understanding from that process rather than inferring meaning without actually forming relationships.  Its about using social media as a springboard for better public engagement and not just as a way of listening in on conversations.
This is clearly more burdensome than simply applying social media monitoring tools and exploring how the data gleaned from these can be used in policy making however with respect to engagement and increasing participation I believe it is worth the additional effort.  When taken alongside the ethical considerations and the importance of not ‘being creepy’ (HT to Ben Goldacre and others for this phrase) I think active listening as I have described can contribute to moving social media beyond the criticism of clicktivism and into the realms of digital democracy.
As this is intend to clarify what I mean I would be grateful for any comments that let me know if I am in going in the right direction!

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