Commentary

When Obama Listens, People Talk

When I was in graduate school working on my degree in education, we used to talk a lot about "teachable moments"--those magical instances in which, due to a confluence of circumstances and individual readiness, a student is especially responsive and able to learn.

As a parent, I often experienced those moments, particularly on road trips. Recognizing that we were all stuck together in the same car for a long stretch of highway (and perhaps also relieved at being in the back seat, where they were spared the dreaded maternal gaze), my typically somewhat sullen adolescent kids would open up, and for those precious miles, we'd, well, we'd just talk. They'd share what was going on in their lives and heads. I'd reciprocate, ask the occasional question, and listen hard to their words and what lay behind them. In the quiet calm of these trips, we'd sometimes learn something we hadn't known before, and always, unfailingly strengthen the bonds between us.

I thought back to those moments three days before the Inauguration, when an ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that of five positive attributes (e.g. "honest and trustworthy," "strong leader"), the one on which President Barack Obama scored highest was "listens to different views," with 89% of all respondents agreeing that this was a key strength of his. In a campaign in which televised talking heads proliferated more than ever, in a year in which 95% of marketing dollars were still spent on talking at customers, what a galvanized American public valued most was a leader whose strength lies in listening.

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What mattered to voters was not just that President Obama has a social media strategy through which to connect with the public. It's that he "listens to different views," recruiting cabinet members and advisors representing a diversity of experiences and views, and enlisting citizens not simply as supporters but as partners. What matters is how he listens, in a way that is intentional, inclusive, and focused.

Those three adjectives also matter, because with the plethora of products and services out there for text mining, trend counting, online communing, blogging, Twittering, etc., well-intentioned companies are sometimes trying to engage in online dialogue without knowing who they're talking to, and are increasingly overwhelmed by the blizzard of "data points" and Babel of voices that these powerful social media enable. And many other companies, understandably wary of wasted investments and confused about who and what to listen to, aren't really trying at all.

So at this historical moment, with a leader who epitomizes "calm," it's time to take a deep, cleansing breath and revisit what his victory teaches us.

As a candidate and newly elected president, Barack Obama is demonstrating that attentive, not anxious, listening is a crucial ingredient of the dialogue that can advance progress and innovation. But this dialogue is only actionable when both "talkers" and "listeners"--those in traditional positions of power and those historically outside the gates--feel equally heard and are equally invested in the outcome.

So this moment in history--when we're all realizing that we're stuck in the same car on a long, bumpy stretch of highway--is a teachable moment, not just for our citizens and consumers, but for our political and corporate leaders.

In this scary, thrilling, wondrous time, we have an opportunity to re-learn the value of listening.

2 comments about "When Obama Listens, People Talk".
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  1. Rod Baker from bizcommunity.com, February 18, 2009 at 7:53 a.m.

    Nice headline.

    One trait I like is that Obama DOES listen, and what we heard here in South Africa was that he welcomes opposing views from his cabinet so that he is tested and the final decisions that are made have also been tested.

    Regrettably, here in South Africa our government and cabinet are completely different. They want sycophants who toe the party line and any dissenting vote or opinion is not welcome. In fact, it could cost you your job - and did in the case of a deputy minister of health who critcised the ANC government's stand on AIDS and their pathetic response to it. She was immediately fired.

    The result is mediocity and acceptance of flawed policies and decisions.

  2. Tom Collins from Windsor Media Enterprises, Inc., February 18, 2009 at 3:46 p.m.

    I love your "scary, thrilling, wonderful" characterization of the opportunities presented by our web-connected world. I wrote a post today about how your thoughts here intertwine with some of Rohit Bhargava's ideas in his book, Personality Not Included. http://tinyurl.com/bh9csv

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