- Steve Cooper is the co-founder of Excella, an information technology firm in Arlington, Virginia.
- He says that the need to feel heard — truly heard — is universal, and yet most of the world still fails at it.
- Managers should say something like, “Here’s what I think you want me to know about this…” to show they’re actively listening to an employee during a conversation.
Wars have been started over it. Jobs are quit every day. Marriages dissolved, revolutions sparked. What is the need that, when unsatisfied, ignites fierce passion since humans began to write on cave walls? The need to feel heard, truly heard.
Much ink has been used to write literature about communication: theory, behavior and habits. People read books on active listening and emotional intelligence. But even with all the great research and writing, why do most of the professional world — and the world in general — still fail to truly listen to one another?
I’ve conducted thousands of interviews throughout my 30 years of hiring consulting professionals, and much of my knowledge and perspectives have come from this practice. From my experience, one of the top three reasons people quit their jobs is because they don’t feel heard — not by their colleagues, and especially not by their boss. What does this knowledge base have to say about the importance of listening?
It feels great to be heard — so much so that our craving to see proof of being heard forms the entire business basis of billion-dollar companies with household names. Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, referenced the link between Facebook likes and the brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine, in this Washington Post article. In it, Parker says, “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.”
In every business meeting, someone — usually everyone — has something they want (or need) to express. And they’ve mentally rehearsed the ideal version of how their messages will be sent and received. But how often does that ideal, rehearsed version become a reality?
The gift of truly listening
Yesterday, one of my direct reports came to me with an idea — a small, no-cost policy change — that would probably drive more revenue and accelerate our entry into new markets. Would the conversation with me, regardless of my approval of the idea itself, give him the professional version of that “feel-good boost” you get when someone likes a social media post? Would he feel like he was heard, and that I understood what he was eager to convey? It seems insignificant, but opportunities to be heard pile up by the hundreds every week and accumulate. They either amass to a powerful asset of positive feelings about the workplace, or they slowly demoralize someone into feeling disenfranchised, interrupted, ignored or nitpicked.
I’ve recently renewed my efforts to hone my listening skills, so this was a great chance for me to do so. As he was proposing his idea, I imagined myself in his shoes and considered what he might be looking for, aside from the obvious “yes.” He wanted to be heard and understood. He wanted consideration and undivided attention. But here’s the interesting part: providing those things is even more important than agreeing with the idea, because the gift of being truly heard makes people more engaged and committed to your team, and you as a leader or colleague.
More and more, I’ve been striving to give every colleague this gift. Even if we disagree, even if they don’t work for or with me, and even regardless of their performance, I still believe that people deserve the gift to be truly heard in every interchange.
Back to the employee proposal. What I did was to make sure I was keenly focused on the conversation, waited until everything had been expressed fully, and asked questions to fully understand the proposal. After considering all the implications of it, I said: “Fabulous idea. I have no questions. Now let’s plan how we can make this happen.”
Of course, it could have been tweaked, or more analysis could have been provided. But there will be time for all of those. And doing any of those would have detracted from the huge motivational boost he received by seeing that he had come with a fully analyzed idea, his manager had listened and given an unqualified, simple yes. This was the rehearsed outcome he had likely hoped for — and to give him that took only about five minutes of truly listening.
It is not uncommon to see others check their phones, glance at the floor or show similar signs of hearing loss when someone is speaking. Sometimes it’s patently obvious they’re preparing what they’re going to say next, since the need to be heard often exceeds the ability to hear. We have all seen two people debating a point without actually validating the true meaning of what the other is saying. This can go on for hours, weeks or even months.
11 words that can help
Think of the awesome power of letting someone express herself to completion, then validating by saying something like, “Here’s what I think you want me to know about this…” These 11 words can bring about a cathartic change in someone’s entire professional life, especially if used over and over. Demonstrate that you understand what is being conveyed, as well as read between the lines to embrace the passion and sense of ownership that the other person has for their idea. This simple act elicits such reliable joy, and shows how rarely people feel heard — and what a valuable gift it is.
Looking back on my own career, I can rarely remember moments when I’ve felt truly heard. I often spent multiple attempts to convey something or had to invent a creative way for my bosses to find their own ways to it or endure numerous tweaks, suggestions and criticisms, many based on a flawed understanding of what was being proposed. I’ve made a request or expressed a viewpoint multiple times in multiple settings, and it’s clear that the audience has still never heard it accurately (or at all). Being disagreed with is one thing; being unheard is a more damaging form of frustration.
How often do you truly hear someone, to the point of being able to get them to confirm that you’ve fully grasped what they came to express? Let’s give each other the gift of undivided attention we are all craving, even just for a few moments.
Steve Cooper co-founded Excella in 2002 and has been a partner since inception. Cooper has over 30 years of experience in technology consulting, specializing in application development and database technology. His technical expertise spans technologies from the mainframe to client/server to the Internet. He possesses industry expertise in telecommunications, hospitality, federal government, law enforcement and manufacturing. His corporate role within Excella is focused on human resources and personnel development. He has developed much of Excella’s cultural and professional development materials, including Excella University and the Excella Extension Center at Virginia Tech.
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