Episode 12 of our Podcast, Take Flight is out! Our hosts, Chaz and Motso chat with Gina Balarin about active listening.
Some marketers strategise. Some write. Some really care. Gina Balarin does all three.
Gina is an international keynote and TEDx speaker, FCIM Chartered Marketer, author of The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People, and sought-after podcast guest with an MEd in Management Communication and a Professional Diploma in Marketing. Gina sits on two boards as a Non-Executive Director, is a Member of the Professional Speaking Association, a Fellow of the Australian Marketing Institute, and is the Founder of Verballistics.
As a verbal and written communication expert who cuts through the noise, Gina joins our hosts, Chaz and Motso, on episode 12 of Take Flight, to unpack one of our core values at Spitfire Inbound, active listening.
“It's not about what you're saying, it's about what people are hearing.”—Gina Balarin
Active listening is essentially about the act of listening. Gina explains that listening isn't just a passive exercise, most people listen just so that they can simply respond. We tend to be more concerned about what we’re going to say next, rather than thinking about the person who we’re actually communicating with. “The art of active listening is about truly deeply understanding what the person that you're talking to, or communicating with, is actually saying. And we forget that it's not about us, it's about them.”
Why does active listening matter in marketing?
In a marketing context, active listening matters far more, because when marketers are able to listen to their audience, they’re able to better understand exactly what they want and need, and more importantly, marketers will be able to truly make a meaningful difference in the lives of their audience.
“As marketers, we have the opportunity to make a difference to people. To be helpful. To serve. But we can’t do this well unless we reach out to our customers. To understand rather than assume. To listen rather than speak.”—Cynthia Marinakos, An Underrated Skill to Be a Better Marketer: Active Listening.”
According to Gina, the challenge is that brands think it’s all about them, and they could not be more wrong. When brands are writing for an audience, they have to imagine themselves in the audience’s shoes. They must also observe the body language of an audience when speaking to them.
““Really, it's all about making sure that you are getting the cues that they're giving back to you, or at least understanding them well enough to produce that content, thanks to the cues you've already received before, during, and, even after communicating with them.”
“Active listening isn't just about giving instructions, it is about checking with your audience that they have received that information.”—Gina Balarin”
In this episode, Gina also speaks about the importance of bravery in active listening, the disconnected customer, and how to use active listening to reconnect with them, as well as social listening, digital listening, and asking those uncomfortable questions in active listening. Take some time to practice active listening right now and listen to this episode.
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Full Transcript below:
Be better. Welcome to the Spitfire Podcast, Take Flight. We're your hosts, Motso…
And Chaz, Inbound Implementers and Social Media Specialists at Spitfire Inbound. We're super excited to welcome Gina Balarin, TEDx speaker, communications expert, and author to discuss the importance of active listening. So why do two inbound marketers care about active listening? And why do we think you should care too?
Because active listening is crucial to running a successful business. And it is critical to rolling out a successful inbound marketing, sales, and services strategy.
Active listening is essentially a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. And as inbound marketers, we know this is a critical and often undeveloped skill. Inbound marketing is all about truly listening to prospects and customers, and responding to those needs helpfully. And without active listening, you're probably missing things or not aligning your message enough to your buyer persona's pain points.
So without further ado, welcome to the podcast Gina and thank you for joining us all the way from Australia.
It is my pleasure to be with you. I have to say, having been born and lived in South Africa for so much of my childhood and young adult life, it is a pleasure to be hearing South African accents again. So Olá!
We woke up this morning and said good morning, and Gina was saying afternoon to us.
That's how we roll. We're all part of a global audience these days.
I love that.
So Gina, we're going to jump straight into it. I'm so excited about active listening as a topic and the 'why' of active listening. And I want to start off by asking, why would you say that active listening is in your wheelhouse?
As a communications expert, it is so important to understand that it's not about what you're saying, it's about what people are hearing. Now, my specialism is not only in writing communications, so anything that a thought leader wants to hear or see, anything that a B2B organisation wants to communicate to their audience, but it is actually about understanding what the audience is reading, what they're hearing, and what they're understanding when those messages go out. Now the challenge usually is that a brand thinks it's all about them. They are wrong. They could not be more wrong. So I sit on both sides of the fence. I sit on the writing side of the fence, and also on the speaking side of the fence. I've been lucky enough to do a TEDx talk a couple of years ago and I actually love speaking to people. But you know, one of the great things about being a good speaker is that it's actually about observing your audience. So whether you're writing for an audience, then you've gotta imagine yourself in their shoes when you communicate, or whether you're speaking to an audience, and you can actually observe their body language as they're interacting with you. Really, it's all about making sure that you are getting the cues that they're giving back to you, or at least understanding them well enough to produce that content, thanks to the cues you've already received before, during, and, even after communicating with them.
Cool. So, Gina, I think we can actually go back to basics. What exactly is active listening?
Well, the hint is in the title, right? Active listening is about the act of listening. Listening isn't just a passive exercise. Mostly people think that you listen in order to respond and you're just waiting for an opportunity to jump in and say what you have to say. And in South Africa, let's face it, right, we talk really fast. We like to interrupt each other. We always have a lot to say, which means that because of the fast pace of that communication, we tend to actually be thinking about what we're saying or what we're gonna say next, rather than thinking about the people that we're talking to. And rather than actually responding, the art of active listening is about truly deeply understanding what the person that you're talking to, or communicating with, is actually saying. And we forget that it's not about us, it's about them. Active listening is something that I think, well, you know, I've certainly learned a lot about over the years and it's amazing how much more you pick up when you're communicating with people that you wouldn't have picked up if you were simply listening to respond.
I'm interested, Gina. What led you into the realm of communications? I thought it was interesting that you say as South Africans we do talk fast and we do speak over each other, but that's probably to get the braai meat on a Saturday. So what was it that led you to the communications? Because I know that you also have travelled a bit before landing in Australia.
I think my going into communication was way before I even left the country. It went back to the early days of understanding why people were saying what they were saying. A lot of people in South Africa grow up in a religious background. Sometimes there's a bible that sits, you know, in the middle of the room and it'll be consulted whenever people have a question. For me, my family history was that we had a dictionary in the middle of the room and we would have not just any old dictionary, not just the Oxford English school edition. No, we had a dictionary that must have been 2000 pages sitting in the middle of the room. And so if ever there was a question, like 'What does that mean?' the answer wasn't, 'I'll tell you,' the answer was, 'Go look it up in the dictionary.' I remember fun stories from my childhood of sitting in the room with my mom who has been in editing for most of her career, and she would sit reading the newspaper with a red pen, making marks in the newspaper. So I think the chances were fairly strong that with a father being a storyteller, and a mother as an editor, I was going to be in the business of communication. But I also found, I became a marketer almost by accident. And because I wanted to go into the world of communication, I didn't realise that I was being a marketer when I was doing things like email marketing, organising events, setting up websites, interviewing people, doing press releases, brochures, and attracting people to courses that I was running at the time. But it found me, and it's only when I actually went to study at the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the United Kingdom that I realised, ’Oh!, all this stuff I've been doing, is in fact, marketing’. And it was the best way for someone who is a writer by heart, and a communicator by passion, to be able to identify that we have meaning, and we need to communicate that meaning, but it actually fits into a corporate context. And I've been exploring what meaning and communication means ever since.
Love that. So why does active listening matter then? What is it in communications, in the language, and then in the marketing sphere? Why does active listening matter?
I think there is an act of listening that helps people think more sincerely. And what do I mean by that? I mean that when we're listening, as I've said previously, we're trying to respond to someone. We're just listening so that we can add our 2 cents worth. When we're actively listening, we are transcending mere words. We all know how people react if we observe their behaviour and their body language. And you can tell whether a message landed well or not. You can tell when someone raises an eyebrow or when someone sits back in their seat with a shocked expression on their face. Active listening isn't just about the words, it is about the whole package. And it's fascinating how even if you can't see people, you can observe their responses to how fast or slowly they speak, or how high or low their tone of voice is. All of these matter in the sense of active listening. But in a marketing context it matters far more because when we are able to listen to the people around us, we are able to understand what they need, what they want, and more importantly, why they care about what we're trying to communicate with them, which really is an inbound principle at heart, isn't it?
Yep. So, Gina we've been talking about active listening from a general perspective. So I want us to bring it back to the business context. And I want to know why should business care about active listening.
So there are a couple of ways of looking at this. The first is that businesses should care about any way of getting feedback from their clients. And the second perspective is that businesses should care about what their employees and fans are doing. Now we're talking about active listening from a one-on-one speaking and listening perspective. But if you think about it, good social media interactions also involve a type of listening. If we want to understand how our brand is doing, it also involves listening to their signals online. If we want to understand how our customers are responding to even adverts on tv, there are ways of observing their responses in terms of their digital footprint. It matters very, very much in a business context. It doesn't just matter because we want to be able to observe if our customers and prospects are responding well to what we've put out there in the world. But let's go back to what happens at organisations when we talk to employees. Now, let's think for a second. You have an employee; you want them to do well; you want them to understand what you're saying, right? They need to be able to follow instructions.
But the problem is that sometimes, and in certain cultures, people will nod and say, 'Yes, yes, yes, I can absolutely do what you want me to do,' and then step away and do something completely different. I've observed this myself, and I'm pretty sure you guys have too.
And so the problem is that active listening isn't just about giving instructions, it is about checking with your audience that they have received that information. So let's use an example, say I talk to Motso and say, 'Hey Motso, would you like to be on a podcast with me?’ And he goes, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, definitely. Next Wednesday, no, maybe Thursday. No, actually, can we do it next month?' If I'm actively listening, I'm observing that his response is not exactly authentic. There's something wrong there. But if I was just listening for yes, I want the yes from him, I would observe that he said 'Yes, yes, of course.' Actually forgetting, that by pushing back and pushing back and pushing back on that date, he's not interested. It doesn't sit well with him. And that is the process that we want to do. So, as an employer and an employee, you're starting to understand your people by asking them questions. Now, that was a scenario where I could observe from his theoretical verbal response, Motso I'm sure you're not like that in reality.
Yeah. But we can also observe it by asking people questions. And so active listening actually is a bit of a misnomer because it's not just about listening, it's actually about asking. So let's use that example again. ‘Motso, do you wanna do a podcast with me?’ He says, 'Yes, I do.' ‘When would be a good time for you?’ ‘Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’. ‘Hang on a second. I'm getting a strange response from you, Motso. Something doesn't feel right. Are you okay?’ Then perhaps the response would be, ‘Actually, you know what, I've had second thoughts about this’, or ‘I'm not really sure’, or ’I just don't have time in my life’. That only came about because I was able to ask the questions. And I think sometimes, even though South Africans are really good at sharing a lot of information, it's just human nature to not share all of our information all the time. And sometimes when we're a little afraid of the response that we're going to get from someone, we don't give them the full information. A good active listener will be able to observe that there is something strange there and ask the sometimes uncomfortable questions to get to what the real issue is behind the scenes.
I love that, and I love that you use that in an employee context. So yes, we're talking about businesses and obviously we think about the customer, which is your selling base, or who you want to get your product or service across to. But when you said it's not just using active listening in order to figure out what we want to know, and that would be, obviously, if you're thinking about business, it's the customer, so we can sell. By using that employee analogy for example, you know, it's really just getting down to it quickly so that we can solve for it and move on. I think it's always better for someone to really get the bigger picture quicker so that we can all band together and solve the problem instead of it being a he said,/she said, or he didn't listen/she didn't listen, situation.
You're so right, Chaz. So often it's just because we didn't ask that question that things can go wrong. So I guess the takeaway for me here is I need to be more aware of the questions I'm not asking. I don’t know if you guys get this, but sometimes I get a feeling that something is uncomfortable in a conversation with someone. And depending on how comfortable you are with them and the scenario, you might not ask that question. Almost always by not asking that question, that issue has come back to bite me in the bum. And if you think about it, how much more time does it take to ask a question based on what your gut or your brain or your heart or your, even your shoulders? If your shoulders are suddenly feeling really stressed, or your breathing is feeling really shallow, you can actually observe your physiological response to that and go, 'Ah, something's wrong here, hang on a second,' and be brave enough to ask that question. Now the problem is that it isn't always easy to ask the question, but it is almost always worth it.
So would you say, Gina, that when you are practising active listening on a more frequent basis, or actively practising active listening, do those questions become a bit easier to ask? Because of that uncomfortable feeling that you were speaking of, where you say it is difficult, but it's almost always worth it. I'm interested to know that if you're thinking if you're actively listening, you know it's going be uncomfortable, but you know that it might be right.
I think you're right. With practice comes perfect, right? But it's not just about practising active listening skills, although that is really helpful. It is also about making sure that we practice bravery skills. There is a wonderful quote by someone by the name of Ruth Gordon. Now she's an American actress who died a few years ago, but the best thing about what she says is that it makes a lot of intuitive sense. And this is the quote, "Courage is like a muscle, we strengthen it with use."
So the braver we are, the more likely we are to be brave. If you think about it, if you sat on the sofa all day every day, and you never did any leg exercises, the first time you went out for a half-hour walk, it would be difficult. But if you do it every day for half an hour, then you soon find that you can do it for 35 minutes, and then 40, and 45, and soon you're walking marathons. How do you do that? Because you strengthen your muscles with use. It's the same with bravery. The first time we do something, it's terrifying. The 20th time we do something, it's just par for the course. It's normal, it's every day. Now what we don't realise is that actually, it's not just us who are afraid. It is almost anyone who hasn't done something before. Some people are extraordinarily brave and, for them, being afraid is part of the challenge.
And if we think of a great example, it's Richard Branson, right? We all know he's the founder of Virgin. We all know he has done amazing things and made extraordinary amounts of money and even owns an island, right? We'd all love to do that. What we may not realise is that even Richard Branson admits to having been scared the first time he tried out an idea, which led to eventually Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Turns out he and a bunch of other people were stuck at an airport, they couldn't get anywhere, so he charted a flight, got a bunch of other people to buy in, and they all paid for the flight and they got to their destination safely. He admits that he was scared the first time he did that. But if you see bravery as an activity that you can keep using every single time, it becomes so much easier. So going back to active listening, if we are uncomfortable asking that question that we don't really know how people are gonna respond, well, we've got to ask ourselves, ‘What's the worst that could happen? Is anyone going to die by asking a question?’ Probably not. In which case, go for it.
I like that. I love that. And you know, we work in the realm of inbound marketing, and that concept of bravery definitely came out in Jane Goodall's Inbound 2022 conversations. And obviously, my brain is just kind of thinking active listening and you know, it's that making sure that there's that mutual understanding between two people listening, not to answer but to understand and to really come out with the best solution. And my brain just keeps going back to the disconnected customer from Inbound 22. Do you think that active listening helps businesses connect to that disconnected customer?
It can. It depends on whether they're listening, right? And it depends on whether the customer is so disconnected that they actually don't want to hear from you anymore. I think the art of listening, and remember, we're not just talking about physical listening with your ears, we're talking about social listening, we're talking about digital listening, and we're talking about using the tools available at your disposal to identify your buyers' online and offline behaviour, if you can. That means that you need every single pair of ears in your organisation. Let's not forget that while we as individuals only have two ears, if we multiply that by the number of people in our organisation, we may have hundreds or even thousands of ears and eyes, and every single one of those pairs of ears and eyes can listen. Now, the problem with disconnected customers is that they may have reached a stage where they're so angry with their lack of service that they no longer want to communicate.
Hopefully, we can prevent that from happening. Now here is the challenge. It's great to listen to people, but if we listen and do nothing with that response, we run the risk of disconnecting people even further. It's the same when HR tries to get feedback from employees. You can ask employees for their feedback, and you can ask them again and again and again and again. But eventually, if nothing happens, as a result of them having given that feedback, they become actively disconnected. And there's a difference between being disconnected passively because it just happened over time, and being actively disconnected. I think actively disconnected customers or employees take that path because they get to a point where they're angry. So how do we stop that? How do we start in the middle and go, ‘Whoa, what's up with our customers?’ Hopefully, if you're using an inbound methodology, you know that you're not just selling to your customers, you're not just maintaining them as customers, but you're actually servicing them in a way that allows them to give you feedback. I'm going to pause for a second here and ask people to think about the ladder of loyalty. It's a marketing concept. Are you guys familiar with it? Do you think we should explain it to the audience?
Let's get into it, just a touch.
So the ladder of loyalty is effectively drawn as a stepladder. And as your connection with the audience evolves, they climb up the rungs of the ladder and they might start as prospects and become customers. And then they become advocates and then they become fans. And as people evolve up that ladder of loyalty, they become more and more engaged and committed to your organisation. Now the thing is that when something damages that relationship, the people who are involved feel guilty, they feel worried; they tend to step away from that customer relationship and disconnect, which means the customers are more likely to feel disconnected. And the problem continues.
The irony is that what happens, in reality, is when you actually have customers, no matter what stage they are on that ladder of loyalty, when you ask them, ‘What's wrong? how can we fix it?’ And you work with them to fix it, they actually become more actively engaged and they climb up the ladder of loyalty. Doesn't that seem quite contrary? Why would someone actually lose faith in you, but gain faith and become more of an advocate? But it's true. I know it's happened to me personally. I'm sure you guys can think of some examples where you go into an organisation or even a shop and you go, 'Hey, this thing is broken, it doesn't work.' And someone can go, 'Oh, I don't care,’ and throw it away, then they've lost you as a customer. But if the response instead is, 'Oh no, that's awful, how can we help?' And they do help you, you're more likely to recommend them to other people because it's about the service, it's about the commitment, it's about the engagement that they have given back to you.
That is how active listening helps businesses connect to a customer. It is by making sure that the signals that they're giving you of discontent can be investigated and remediated before a customer becomes actively disconnected. And if you're lucky, if a customer is disconnected, maybe you have the opportunity to reach out to them with honesty and apologies, genuine apologies, and say, 'Hey listen, we screwed up. We're so sorry. What can we do to fix this?' And by the way, the answer is almost always, never just throw money at the problem. The answer is almost always listening actively, and giving them as much as you can of what they really want.
I really like that. Gina and I feel like from everything that you've mentioned today, you've given us so much insight into active listening. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for anyone who's starting their journey? Because I know many of our listeners, perhaps, who will be listening, it might be their first time hearing about active listening, or they never actually took it to heart. But do you have any pearls of wisdom that you can give to anyone who's starting that journey of active listening?
Well, this is a bit of a spoiler alert because I think we're going to talk about this at another point in time. So please do come back and listen to our future conversation. But if you think about active listening, it isn't just about what's happening with your ears, it's about what's happening with your brain and your heart. So start by paying attention to people and try to withhold judgment. We all make judgment calls when we listen to someone, but if you can actively acknowledge that, ‘Oh wow, that's interesting, I am judging them’ and go, ‘Hmm, let me park that for a while’, then reflect on what they saying and ask them. That's the whole point about asking clarifying questions. ‘What I think I heard was that. Is that really what I heard?’ It never hurts to summarise what they've actually said. ‘So I think you said X. Is that correct?’ And then make sure that you're actually sharing those listening skills and sharing those responses in a way that they know that you're going to follow up on them. So I think that would be a great takeaway for someone who's thinking about active listening. Just remember that it's not about you, it is about the person you're talking to. And if you can stop trying to get your message across, and actually start listening to what your audience really wants, you're more likely to be actively involved in listening and engaging with them. It's not about you, it's about your customers and your customers’ customers.
It's not about me. Sorry, I was just making my notes there quickly, because that is so important. And thank you so much for those insights. We definitely unpacked the why of active listening. You can find all the links to Gina's books in the episode description. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. As Gina said, we can catch part two where we dig into the how of active listening.
Yes, guys. And also remember to check out the blog post connected to this episode at Spitfireinbound.com. And we'll also like for you to like and subscribe to our podcast and also for you to leave us a review. If you like this episode, remember to tag us on social media, on the handle at @Spitfireinbound, and drop us any thoughts or questions for Gina on our social media using the hashtag #Take Flight #Active Listening. So guys, thank you again and see you soon. Bye.