• The Art of Listening Taught by an Expert

    by  • October 16, 2012 • On Public Relations

    The greatest speaker on the subject of public relations I have ever seen was Pat Jackson. No one else has even come close.

    If Jackson, principal of his own PR firm and former president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), was in the lineup at a conference sponsored by PRSA or the Council for Advancement and Support of Education I’d be there. He was a dynamic, energetic speaker who always delivered…always. He told me things I did not know, motivated me to improve as a practitioner and forced me to question some of the strategies and tactics I was using.

    I remember vividly one session in which he opened his remarks with the statement, “Public relations is more difficult than brain surgery.” I watched a skeptical audience lean forward. We listened intently as Jackson made the case for his premise.

    “When a brain surgeon opens up a patient’s skull,” Jackson said, “all of the parts are in the same place, every time. That’s not the case with public relations. Every crisis, issue or problem is different and complex. There is no tried-and-true pattern to follow.”

    When the speech was over I went up to congratulate him and ask a couple of questions. Unlike so many speakers, who want to do the obligatory handshake and get out of the room, Jackson focused in on me and made it clear he was interested in what I was saying. Even more impressive, he never failed to promptly send additional information when he returned to his office.

    The opportunities I had to spend one-on-one time with Jackson meant even more to me. When old friend Mary Ann Aug and I collaborated on bringing Jackson to Pittsburgh to address her staff at the University of Pittsburgh and mine at Carnegie Mellon University, I had a chance to take him to dinner.

    Knowing Jackson’s penchant for places that are distinctive and reflect their communities my choice was Chiodo’s, a classic steel mill town bar and restaurant known for its delicious “mystery sandwich.” The owner, Joe Chiodo, was always in the barroom, whose walls were covered with Pittsburgh sports memorabilia.

    I looked across our table and saw that Jackson was very tired from a very long day, so I felt the need to move the meal along and get him out of there. But then the conversation started. We talked about public relations, about life, and he asked questions about my situation and the city of Pittsburgh, and the look in his eyes showed me his interest was genuine. I remember leaving Chiodo’s that night feeling like I had learned yet another lesson from the great Patrick Jackson.

    I learned to never underestimate the power of listening. Few people do it, so it is a remarkable and surprising thing when you find someone who listens intently and demonstrates the value he or she places in the person who is speaking. When you listen you are learning and you are expressing your humanity, a concern for and interest in others. Listening–valuing another person and his or her ideas and views–is a window on who you are.

    The words spoken by the late, great Pat Jackson, who died in 2001, have shaped my career, but his humanity, his goodness, his concern for others and his heartfelt commitment to listening have been models for my life.