The discussion was impassioned and heated. And while I had not initiated the debate, I unconsciously slid into an old habit of jumping into the fray.
I started to share my perspective when a woman named Audrey abruptly turned away from me and started to make her case to someone else in our group. I tried to make eye contact but she wouldn’t look at me. I called her by name but she ignored me.
In that moment, when Audrey turned around and did not answer me, I felt the rage that comes from being unacknowledged, invisible, nonexistent.
Generally, I have the incredible fortune of living my life with rank and privilege. I am CEO of a company, an advisor to senior leaders, and I write about, and teach, leadership. My experience is one of being acknowledged, answered, seen, and heard.
But in that discussion, for the briefest of moments, I dipped my toe into the sea of disregard that so many swim in all their lives.
The Effects of Being Ignored
Dr. Kipling Williams’s research on the effects of being ignored and excluded reveal an unsurprising truth: being ignored hurts. And it instigates behavior (often anti-social) that’s meant to recover your existence. In other words, people who are ignored will do things that cannot be ignored.
There is no greater obligation that we have as leaders, than to see those around us. Not just glance their way but give them the experience of being fully seen. The opposite of invisible.
This, Kipling’s research suggests, leads “to social attentiveness and pro-social behaviors.” The opposite of our reaction to invisibility.
Think about your colleagues. And about your employees, including the most junior among them. Think about your clients or customers. Think about people you work with of a different culture, race, or background, a different social status or education.
Do they feel seen by you? Heard by you?
Our sacred (and very practical) obligation as leaders is to see and hear the people around us. Which, at times, can be hard.
How to See the People Around You
But nothing could be simpler: Ask questions and listen to the answers.
Let the tone of your questions be curiosity, not interrogation. This won’t just help you understand the opinions of the people around you, it will help you understand them. How did they come to hold that view? What is behind it? Who are they?
In other words, while their opinions might inform you, and maybe even influence your opinions and decisions, your listening will also give them an experience of being seen and heard.
People’s opinions, especially strongly felt ones, are a window into their soul. You will hear their longings, their fears, their uncertainties and struggles. Understand what that opinion says about who they are, what they care about. Why it matters to them so much. You will see them and they will feel seen.
There are millions of people, some of them in your company, who rarely feel seen or heard from leadership. Imagine the “social attentiveness and pro-social behaviors” you could generate simply by asking and listening.
Look around you today. Who can you see?
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