It is the season of giving, and while many of the things we think about giving are tangible, there is one gift that can be powerful, generous and intangible. I recently spoke at an event in Utah, where I used a variation of an exercise from the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless (2013). I asked the participants to identify a time in their lives when they felt that they were truly seen, heard and respected by the person they were talking to. Then I asked the opposite question – think of a time in your life when you weren’t fully seen, heard or respected.
After each person identified their two stories, I asked them to compare the feelings that arose each time. How did their ability to communicate their thoughts change, if at all, and how did their sense of self change? They shared their reflections with another person in the room, and then we shared as a large group. And the answers weren’t surprising. When a person was completely seen, heard and respected, they recalled feeling more confident and sharing their thoughts more openly. They felt like the other person saw their “wholeness.” And the opposite was true when they weren’t seen, heard or respected.
When you take time to recognize a person as an integrated whole, it changes your relationship with them – and not just feelings and perceptions on your end. It changes how the other person sees themselves, and it changes how they show up in the relationship as well. Last year, I visited my primary physician for my annual checkup. As she was going through my lab results, I said that I was more than my lab scores. She paused, repeated what I said and chose to write it down, as if she wanted to remember to see the person inside the patient in front of her. Her quick uptake on my comment created a moment of person-to-person understanding that will continue to positively shape our relationship. The gift of listening to one another – deeply and authentically – fundamentally transforms us all.
Optimizing the whole
This kind of authentic listening and acknowledgment of others’ wholeness can also transform our organizations. As leaders, we seek engagement from our employees. We have figured out that innovation, problem-solving and decision-making improve when people engage authentically in our teams, departments and organizations. However, we don’t always understand that engagement is impacted by how sincerely we listen to, respect and see our employees as individuals. If we want more meaningful employee involvement, we need to invite the whole person into our workplaces and treat their contributions with respect. This leadership practice is yet another way to increase the value of interdependence within your organization.
Giving the gift of deep listening
In the midst of wrapping presents this holiday season, it’s easy to forget the most powerful gift we can give – to fully see the person we are with and invite them to share what they are thinking, feeling and experiencing. With no expensive costs or preparations necessary, this present only requires taking the time to listen, to see the person as a unique individual and to show them respect. When we experience this – both in giving and receiving – it is a wonderful gift that keeps on giving beyond a day or week.