The Importance of Feeling Heard

The other day, I went to work early with the intention of getting a few things done before the day of meetings began. I barely hit the light switch in my office, and someone was at my door. She was having issues with a member of my team. So much for my hope to get a head start on my day! I gave her my full attention, and let her describe the problem to me.

I’m Listening…

listeningIt turned out that what she really needed—probably without being aware of it—was to be heard and have her feelings of overwhelm acknowledged. As I listened to her, it became clear that she really didn’t have a case against my staff. Rather, the real issue was that she felt overloaded, which didn’t allow her to provide the information and clarification necessary for my staff to support her effectively. I first made sure I let her know I heard her, by reflecting back to her what I heard. Then, I explained calmly the collaboration my team needed from her to be able to deliver what she needed. There was absolutely no way around it. Later in the day, I got separate confirmation from her and my staff that things were better between them and that the project was moving forward.

What was clear from that experience was that, if I hadn’t first created the space for this business partner to say what she needed to say, the problem would have continued to escalate. When I was in the listening mode, I didn’t say whether I agreed or disagreed with what I was hearing, nor did I comment or rebut. It was only after she was done presenting her case that I asked questions and offered my opinion on what needed to happen, which included things she needed to do that she didn’t do before. Because I acknowledged her complaint first, both overt (issues with my staff) and covert (resentment for having too much on her plate), she was able to hear what I had to say about what was needed to resolve the situation.

This experience happened in a professional setting. However, it can—and does—happen in personal situations as well. When we feel heard, we are more receptive to hearing what we ourselves need to hear. On the contrary, when we don’t feel heard, we tend to close off and dig in our heels, even if we aren’t aware of stonewalling the other party. When we feel heard, we feel the other party is on our side. When we don’t feel heard, it’s us vs. them.

Helping Others Feel Heard

Smicrophoneo, how can we tell if there isn’t enough listening, and how do we help someone feel heard? Let’s start with signs of not enough listening:

  1. When they keep repeating themselves. Some people tend to repeat themselves no matter what. Beyond personality quirks, though, when someone keeps saying the same thing over and over again, especially something that’s high in emotional content, pay attention. Chances are that they’re repeating themselves because they didn’t feel heard.
  2. They become combative. Again, specific personalities aside, when people don’t feel heard, they feel they’re alone fighting for themselves—because, in their mind, they’re on their own, and you aren’t on their side.
  3. They stonewall. For those who don’t like to fight, they’d retreat into passive-aggressiveness. Again, they don’t feel part of the same team as you, so why bother?

Now, let’s talk about what we may be able to do to help someone feel heard:

  1. Give them your undivided attention. Maintain full eye contact without staring them down. Let them know you’re fully with them while they tell you what’s on their mind—or in their heart. Remember, this isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with them. You’re simply holding space for them to talk.
  2. Reflect back what you heard. I find it really helpful to start with saying, “I hear you, [name]”—and really mean it. Then, paraphrase back to them what you heard, “What I heard is that you think/feel…” Again, this is just to confirm that you heard them, not necessarily whether you agree with what you heard.
  3. Verify that they feel heard. Ask them, “Did I miss anything?” This may seem too obvious to state, but asking if you got what they want you to hear is the best way to ensure that they are heard.

Listening keeps communication open, builds rapport and trust, and enables all parties involved to move toward a common underlying interest.

Over to you: Can you think of situations when you were the person who was or wasn’t heard and the party who did or didn’t listen? What happened and what were the outcomes? What may you add to the above lists about how to spot lack of listening and how to help someone feel heard?

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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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12 comments
Samantha_S_Hall
Samantha_S_Hall

What Jon said!  ....  Excellent post Alice.  

Discounting has generally been the biggest issue I've run into both personally and professionally.  I have far too many 'stories' I could share so I'll stick with one on the personal side.  My husband and I had the same PCP at the time when he passed away.  On two separate occasions with the same doctor, she discounted what I had to say.  The first time it was when I went in to finally deal with a long term knee injury from an old ski accident.  I was working as a nurse at the hospital on an ortho-neuro ward of all places.  And after living in denial for far too long that there was, indeed, something really wrong with my knee.  I finally went in to request further tests be done . At the time of the injury, the ER said I didn't tear anything and only pulled ligaments, etc.  So here I am with my own doc feeling like a big baby before I even open my mouth because I felt I was perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill.  Told her about the initial injury.  Symptoms following the injury and really wanted to have an MRI done thinking that 'maybe' I tore my meniscus or something.  

Upon hearing this she sarcastically said, 'I DOUBT you tore your meniscus....you'd KNOW if you tore your meniscus!'  She didn't know I was a nurse so I told her that I was and told her where I worked.  Upon hearing that, she immediately scheduled an MRI.  And lo and behold.  Not only had I been living with torn meniscus in both knees, but also a torn ACL!  (I've had 3 surgeries on that knee since then! haha)  

 Same doctor saw my husband and I on one of his visits.  I can't remember why I was actually in the room with him that day. I mainly recall asking her about my husband's night sweats.  He had been suffering from them regularly and it really concerned me.  My husband told me it was nothing to worry about but I didn't care.  I brought it up to the doctor anyway.  And she didn't seem to think there was anything 'wrong' either.... He saw her again 2 weeks before he died for a cough that wasn't going away.  His VS were normal though.  He died of a heart attack 2 weeks later at the age of 35. 

When it comes to my husband, of course, I've wrestled with the 'what if' people would have listened to me when I expressed my concerns? Would he still be alive today?  I don't anymore and have finally let that go because I know there is nothing that can be done now.  Nothing will change the past.  What I learned is that it's better to err on the side of caution then put off expressing concerns in case it could be something serious.  

 Now these are two more extreme examples of not dealing with a very good listener, including being discounted. Yet a point I want to make clear to leaders/doctors ...ANYONE...is that if you discount the concerns people have, they may feel forced to discount it themselves and it's not a good idea if those concerns are valid.  Whether that's with our health or a concern on the job.  

Another wonderful post Alice. Thanks for sharing. : )

 



TerriKlass
TerriKlass

As someone who values strong communication, being a great listener and making people feel like they have been heard is so important. 

Your post is terrific Alice as you not only stress the value in being heard but show effective ways to do it. For me, I make sure not to interrupt someone or put words in their mouth while they are speaking. I also don't solve all their problems, just ask some helpful questions to point them in the right direction.

Thanks!

VoiceLifted
VoiceLifted

I used to have a poster in my choir loft, reminding my singers, "listen louder than you sing."  Listening...really listening...is so important...and so often listening gets short-changed in the midst of multi-tasking and busyness.  But listening to people matters, because people matter, and what they have to say matters.  Your blog post was a beautiful reminder of how important it is to really stop and listen for the sake of listening.  There's a big difference between listening & waiting for our turn to talk.  In order to communicate with respect and to communicate well, we need to practice good listening and value the gifts of true listening.

Hiten Vyas
Hiten Vyas

Hi Alice,


Firstly my big apologies for taking so long to comment. It was a been particularly hectic week.


Your post on the importance of being heard and the advice you shared on how we can do so was excellent.


One point I would like to add about spotting a lack of listening, is when one can't see that another person is facing difficulty, because one is only concerned about expressing how he/she is feeling about a situation. This can create a big amount of resentment and confusion on the part of the person who is struggling. The example you shared with the staff member was brilliant, because you went straight into 'other' mode to figure out what was happening with the individual.


Thank you.

Lori
Lori

Hi Alice! What a wonderful post about listening! I really appreciate the 3 signs you provided that a person is not feeling heard. Sometimes we feel we are listening well, but maybe we are not ;o

I'm thinking too about how fortunate your coworkers are to have you on staff!

Lori

Latest blog post: How to Become Free of the Ego

ThinDifference
ThinDifference

Being heard is so important. Otherwise, people lose confidence in expressing their opinions and begin to lose faith in the organization they work within. It takes effort on the part of leaders to really listen and really hear what someone is saying. You offer some great points, Alice, on how to do this.

My point is this:  If you don't take the time to really hear your team members, you will hear them closing the door and walking away to new leaders and new organizations who may have better developed listening and hearing skills.

Thanks, Jon

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Samantha_S_Hall Wow, Samantha, what powerful experiences you shared! What you raised is what often happens when we don't listen with an open mind and/or heart but rather we judge. With your PCP, she probably thought she was exercising her professional opinion and being efficient with her diagnosis - vs. my doctor's share partner who tends to err on the side of ordering all kinds of unnecessary tests. I can't begin to imagine the years of "what if" you must have lived with regarding your husband. Thank you so much for sharing!

Latest blog post: Recognizing Help

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@TerriKlass Thanks for adding your insights about active listening, Terri! Yes, it really isn't our job to fix others' problems, and asking them questions to help them find their own answers is the way to go.

Latest blog post: Recognizing Help

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@VoiceLifted Well said, Susan. I love "listen louder." Yes, active listening is not practiced as much as it really needs to be practiced. Often times, someone barely says something and the "listener" is already formulating their response, and not really hearing the speaker anymore. We really do need to be good listeners and *really* listen. Thanks again for stopping by, reading and sharing your comments!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Hiten Vyas Hiten, never a need to apologize. It's always good to see your perspective whenever it's good for you. And, I *do* understand busy! Work travels have started kicking in, among other things.

Thank you for your comment about what happens when we're too caught up in what we're feeling/thinking that we stop listening to the other party. That's exactly why listening doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.

All the best, my friend!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

Thank you, Lori, on all accounts! Yes, it's so easy to think we're listening when we aren't. For most human beings, what goes on quire automatically is that we only hear the first few words and our mind is busy formulating a response. When we do that, we aren't listening anymore. Thank you for joining this conversation!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

Completely agree with you, Jon! That's defnitely the case for assets we want to retain in an organization. Can't have good leadership without having good active listening. Thank you for sharing your valuable insight! 

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