As a consultant and executive coach, I try to listen very carefully to what people are saying. I listen to understand their concerns, gain deeper insights into who they are as individuals, and find the clues to help me understand the structures and power dynamics of their organizations. My clients usually listen to me, too — for tips, acknowledgment of their points of view, and cues about what might be the best thing to do in a given situation.
We all know that listening carefully, actively, and attentively is part of building stronger relationships. Recently I had a visceral experience of this when I was interviewed by Ben Bradbury of the Subject Matter podcast. Ben is not just an interviewer, he’s also a curator of content.
Feeling Attended To
Ben and I chatted online several days before the interview, as many podcast hosts like to do. Apropos of one of our conversational threads, I recommended that he watch a TED Talk by Benjamin Zander called “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” While the talk is ostensibly about classical music, it’s also about bringing the power of possibility to people and helping them make the most of it.
During our podcast, Ben mentioned that he had watched Zander’s TED Talk, and that he’d found it heartwarming. His watching it and seeing the value in it meant a lot to me, and I told him why. The first reason was that he had taken me seriously enough to act based on the information I had given him.
Secondly, Ben showed me that he cared about something I cared about. Our shared moment of insight was a concrete reminder that during this time, when we are working at a distance from each other, taking one another seriously and caring about what our colleagues care about may be one of the most enriching things we can do for our relationships.
What Happens When We Get to Know Each Other?
There is a generative quality to being heard and understood and to sharing a moment of insight. In the past few years, there has been a positive value ascribed to “being seen,” as in being recognized and known, or accepted for who one is. When people see each other as they are, not just as “the other” or as a function or role, they can relate and collaborate in ways that augment and magnify each other’s contributions.
At another point in the podcast, I also suggested to Ben that in the past businesses have often thought much more about the importance of the work than about the importance of the worker. People have generally been expected to handle their personal lives and keep the messy bits out of the office.
Over time, the idea that we have work selves that are separate from — and certainly tidier than — our full selves has become outright oppressive. Of course it has been acknowledged that employees have separate home lives, complete with families and hobbies. But for many years, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and differently abled people have had to mask elements of their lives that didn’t fit into the dominant work culture, rather than sharing or exposing their true challenges.
What Can We Accomplish Together?
Pandemic conditions have made many leaders more conscious of employees’ real lives as pets and children show up in Zoom meetings and spouses trade off schoolwork and shopping for elderly relatives. Now that leaders have greater awareness of what really happens in employees’ home lives, I’m hopeful that the fullness of those lives will no longer be forced into the background, but will stay in the foreground as part of the conversation.
As a result of the Covid-19 crisis, humane leaders and workplaces may develop much greater recognition of who their colleagues actually are, along with more concern for how their colleagues actually are. This is an exciting possibility. When employees are fully seen and heard as the multidimensional human beings they really are, and leaders begin, as Ben said, treating them as “people first and businesspeople second” — employees will be able to bring their best bits as well as their messy bits to work. And that combination will, in fact, be enriching to the work itself.