Skip to main content
bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen," said Ernest Hemingway. For politicians, there may be no better advice.

These days, politicians are schooled in how to deliver their message, how to draw attention to what they have to say, and how to do it so often that they will be ever-prominent in the minds of voters.

It's a cluttered information market, so this is hardly bad advice. But too much of a good thing can be counterproductive.

Over lunch last week with one of Canada's more successful young MPs I found myself in a discussion about the virtue of listening for any person seeking elected office, and most particularly for party leaders.

In my experience, the very best leaders are brilliant at shaping and punching their message through the clutter – but they are remarkable listeners too.

There are two reasons why listening makes for excellence in political leadership.

The first is how it makes voters feel.

More distance has grown between those who run and those who vote. Often, voters can feel that they are simply the vehicle necessary to the success of the politician, rather than the reverse.

Imagine a campaigning politician who meets a small group of undecided voters, delivers a speech, takes a few questions and leaves. This happens often. The impression left is that the meeting was about the politician rather than the voters: here's what I believe, please do something for me. The voter's feelings and ideas are immaterial; the conversation is really intended to be one-way.

The same small group meeting designed around listening, leaves voters with fundamentally different feelings. Asking voters what they need you to know, what's keeping them awake at night….this is a far more interesting conversation for most people. Finish with a short speech about what you've heard and what your own beliefs are, and chances are there are more potential supporters in the room than when you entered. And more than if you had just shown up and talked about yourself and your platform.

The second reason listening is good for a politician is that it makes them better at their jobs.

I'm not talking about listening as in: just do everything voters want. I'm talking the basics of good human interaction: empathy, making people know that they are important to you, and what they say is of interest.

Naturally, by listening with an open mind, you have a better chance of fashioning an agenda that appeals to voters. But listening is even more valuable when you are trying to argue a policy that's complex, or unpopular.

Take the current debate about carbon pricing. Many Canadians would like to see Canada make more progress in limiting emissions. Most also want to avoid policy changes that are too abrupt or radical in their impact on the economy.

Research suggests these voters doubt the PM really cares about reducing emissions but they also think he knows a thing or two about how the economy works.

When Mr. Harper says it would be "crazy" to take any additional action now, he calls to mind his "I don't care what other people think" comment at a Conservative Party convention not long ago. It insults the intelligence of those voters who care about this issue, even if the intention was simply to insult a political opponent.

Taking the same position on the same issue, but starting with an articulation of what many Canadians are feeling (can't we do more, shouldn't we be trying harder, etc) would be received differently: not as a sign of weakness but as a signal of understanding. It might not win him more friends, but it won't create more enemies, needlessly.

On most issues, most days, most voters are willing to take no for an answer. But "I won't hear you" or "I don't care what you think" makes them pretty cranky.

In our technology-saturated world, it's getting harder to pay attention. And ironically, it's getting easier to spot someone who isn't. One interesting way to watch how our political leaders perform in the coming months is to pay attention to how well they appear to be listening, and what effect this has on their standing.