Coaching Conversations with Women Leaders – Chapter 3: Being Heard, Not Just Listened To

The feminine mindset draws clear distinctions between being listened to and being heard.  There are a myriad of listening techniques that can be mechanically practiced and enhanced.  Organizations invest time and resources in practicing/developing these skills in their leaders.  However, left brained listening that focuses on words, facts, the logic of a conversation, and validates through restating what has been said, is not the same as feeling validated through active, empathetic, and contextual listening.  Someone who feels heard feels the listener has suspended the knowing voice, and carries a frame that allows the listener to be able to detect the underlying emotions, feelings, and context or situational factors surrounding the words.  Great leaders are able to connect at an emotional level and validate what others are feeling as well as the context.

One of the most powerful examples that vividly demonstrates the difference between being listened to versus being heard occurred during the 1992 Presidential debate between Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Ross Perot. A young African American woman asked “how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives, and if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people, if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” President Bush was visibly thrown off by the question. His body language and tone signaled annoyance towards the questioner.   After several attempts at understanding the question, he answered with a logic-based approach, focusing on facts selected to persuade the questioner that the national debt was a higher order concept that could not really be linked to individual lives.  He also attempted to use the power of his office to convince her by saying “you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear, and see what I see, and read the mail I read, and touch the people that I touch from time to time…” which further disconnected him from his audience. He attempted to convince the audience that although he has not personally experienced financial hardship, this did not mean that he does not understand it. At one point he exacerbated a bad moment by nervously looking at his watch. It made him seem even more disconnected. His answers all had an air of talking down and lecturing to the audience. He did not exhibit any visible non-verbal cues that showed an emotional connection with the questioner or an understanding of the situation/context that surrounded her life.

In stark contrast, President Clinton moved toward the questioner and established eye contact and a non-verbal connection. He validated her by demonstrating that her question was important, and given his own background and circumstances, he could empathize with her and the challenges that she faced.  Next, he offered her hope by providing a supportive shoulder as well as a path forward. Irrespective of one’s political affiliation, this moment captured in the video below is recognized by political pundits from both parties as a defining and seminal moment in favor of President Clinton in the 1992 Presidential debates. A CBS News poll found that 53 percent of US voters thought so, versus 25 percent who favored Bush.

Research conducted by John Gottman in his groundbreaking work on marriage and relationships shows that one of the most important factors in the success of relationships is the extent to which one or both of the partners feel that he/she is “heard” and validated by the other. 1

In the work setting, this translates into a leadership style that demonstrates genuine care and attention to the emotional and affective aspects. I am continuously amazed at how shocked and surprised leaders are when they receive the results of their employee surveys. In many cases, the areas with the lowest scores include the extent to which:

  • Employees feel their perspectives and opinions are valued and considered in decision making
  • Management genuinely cares and invests in their professional and personal development
  • There is transparency in organizational and leader communication
  • Leaders make themselves available and are approachable

The common thread running across all of these areas is the employee perception of not being heard by their leaders. The feminine mindset places high value on the ability of a leader to really hear their employees. Here are some indicators:

  1. Can the leader pick up on the real message that their employee is communicating to them? Not only the spoken words, but the feelings and emotions that surround those words – Empathetic Listening
  2. Can the leader understand the context that is surrounding the spoken words?  For example, the culture in which the employee was raised – Contextual Listening
  3. Can the leader put him or herself in the shoes of the employee at that particular point in their career, and feel the currents that are driving the employee’s thoughts and feelings?
  4. What are the non-verbal cues, such as the body language and tone of the leader, as he or she is listening? (Once more, notice President Clinton’s non-verbal communication while answering the question –
  5. What are the ways in which the leader shows understanding and empathy in regards to what their colleague is telling them?

Questions for our online conversation

  • Have you worked with leaders who were either especially adept or incompetent at making you feel like you were heard? What were the characteristics of these leaders and their listening?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • How did it shape you and your leadership, if at all?

1. Gottman JM, Silver N. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Three Rivers Press; 2000.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Coaching Conversations with Women Leaders – Chapter 3: Being Heard, Not Just Listened To

  1. craig stanton says:

    Hello Kaveh,

    I am really struck by your post. The notion that there are levels of non-verbal communication that leaders can tap into – indeed that leaders have a responsibility to tap into – to help ensure that their employees are heard strikes a powerful chord with me. Are there particular books or articles that you can recommend for leaders on the art of listening to body language – whether it be in their employees, their children, or their closest friends? After reading your post I am feeling that I have a personal responsibility to start more intentionally listening and observing for much more than just the thought-based cues that American discourse seems to be so invested in.

    Craig Stanton, Federal government leader

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