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Trace Cohen


Our listening shapes the telling

I’ve been deeply inspired by the work of my dear friend and colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Paul Browde, who talks about listening in profound and revelatory ways. His ideas have informed how I approach both my work as a brand marketer and my wider world. 

Paul describes how “our listening shapes the telling” and uses the metaphor of water taking the shape of the vessel into which it is poured to describe how what we say is only heard by how well it is held. By way of example, while we tend to think about storytelling as being told by the teller, it lives in the ‘relational space’ between the teller and the listener, with the listener holding equal weight in shaping the narrative. Bottom line, your telling is only as good as my listening. Extend that to brand marketing, and we’re reminded why a conversation is an apt metaphor for the relationship between company and customer, why telling is a dead end and listening is in fact the essence of the relationship. 
As a child stutterer you would have thought I’d be a natural listener, more than delighted to play second fiddle to the outspoken kids I surrounded myself with who were never stumped with what to say or when to say it. But that was not the case, as I was so very focused on what I’d hope to say next, that I had scant time to listen at all. To add insult to injury, my ADHD tendencies had me distracted and daydreaming my way through class (where I was constantly kicked out for not listening), and despite my early talents as a promising tennis star, I was asked to leave the school’s A-team until I could pay enough attention to keep the score. 

In the course of my career, the consequence of my inconsistent listening was evident. While strategic ideation was my superpower, it was only as good as my listening  and paying attention was hard. I had to literally train myself, through both meditative practice and remarkable guides like Paul,  to be more present and in the moment. The results showed. An empath at heart, I  honed my management skills to emerge as a leaderful listener building career-spanning relationships with the teams I have led.


As a digital strategist, informed by an early career in UX, being attuned to the needs of customers was the only path to success. And in adland, amidst the constant hum of new business pitches, I have literally been thanked by clients who feel ‘heard’ and ‘understood’ – I recall that as the distinct feedback after being awarded the $30MM Chevrolet account where our focus on the needs of the client had spoken far louder than the “creds and capes” of our competitors (ahem, a bunch of ad guys talking endlessly about their Cannes Gold glory.)
A few tips on some of the techniques I have used to hone my listening:
1. Clear the listening – at the start of a meeting, consider an exercise to ‘clear the listening’. Do a quick round robin to ask if anything is ‘in your listening’ that would prevent you from being fully present - be it the fact that you’re expecting a FedEx to show up mid-Zoom meeting, or feeling distracted by a project that makes your effort to listen worthless to even try and be of value. You’ll be surprised to find what shows up when you just name what’s in the way, and you’ll find that the focus and intention of the meeting is far more on point than just charging mindlessly into your agenda.  

2.  Let AI elevate your listening – likely not the curveball you were expecting, but AI can do wonders to elevate our listening. Let the AI take notes in your next Zoom while you focus on the content and conversation. I’m a fan (and marketing advisor ) to Loop which I use for this purpose, whose very reason for being is to ‘Create the space to listen’ and will send you a succinct recap after the meeting. As another hack, I often use Otter, the AI transcription service, for the ‘live subtitles’ it offers that allow me to keep literal track of every last spoken word.

3. Listen for possibility – it’s an expression I learned at Landmark Forum which I did many years back, where one listens for what’s NOT being said to uncover what might be possible. In biz parlance, I like to think about this tool while earning  ‘share of problem’. Your ability to listen deeply to the wide swath of challenges a client faces allows you to uncover market opportunities. And new business opportunities at that. 
I mean it when I say it, if I can lend an ear, I’m here to listen by way of support. I’ll keep this thread  going on my Linked In over the coming weeks.  It would be great to have an actual conversation on how we can collectively enrich the marketplace with our deeper listening. 

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