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Feeling Seen, Heard, and Understood in the Workplace

Leaders—Are you listening or re-loading?

Key points

  • Every person has an innate desire to feel seen, heard, and understood.
  • True listening can support the well-being of the listener, speaker, and organization.
  • The team can work together to create a workplace environment where everyone feels like they belong.

As human beings, one of our deepest desires is to belong. We all want to feel seen, heard, and understood. We can create workplace communities that foster psychological safety. Communities where our teams feel a sense of belonging through effective acknowledgment, listening, and understanding.

Leaders need to recognize and acknowledge what their employees need and want. Yes, this is a truth that many of us know, yet true listening and understanding are pieces that are sometimes neglected in the workplace. The cost of poor listening and employees not feeling recognized, heard, or understood can lead to decreased productivity, job dissatisfaction, low commitment, burnout, or even seeking out work with another organization they believe will value them (Pery et al., 2020).

Often, when people are sharing their thoughts, especially concerns, with their leaders, leaders have a tendency to fast-forward the conversation in their own heads to arrive at a solution and then simply wait for the person to stop talking so they can fix it. If we are re-loading what we will say back or solving the issue, can we really even be listening?

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers once shared, "We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know."

The research highlights that organizations benefit from greater employee morale, motivation, productivity, creativity, and clarity when we listen effectively (Castro et al., 2018; Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022). Findings illustrate that leaders and employees who listen create high-quality connections and a sense of togetherness. We also know that the listener plays an important role in creating space for positive and open conversations where speakers feel comfortable sharing their views (Weinstein et al., 2022).

Kriz et al. (2021) investigated the experience of feeling heard or unheard in the workplace. Their findings revealed that workers' needs could sometimes be fulfilled through conversation alone. However, for the times when follow-up actions were necessary, it was important to have been truly listening so that appropriate action could be taken to address the workers' needs. As such, speakers should clearly articulate their needs for the benefit of themselves and the listener.

Our time and attention are two of our most valuable resources. While we all may feel heaping amounts of stress, distraction, and/or disconnection at times, we can do our best to be present and show up for those on our team.

Here are six ways we can help our team members feel seen, heard, and understood:

1. Treat the people on your team like adults.

People are tired of being made to feel that they are irresponsible and incompetent. Micro-managing and lack of trust do not build community. Instead, recognize them as the adults they are, with the strengths they have, and trust that they will effectively do the job they were hired to do.

2. Get curious.

Human beings are interesting creatures with different needs, wants, and perspectives. We are all knowledge-holders from diverse backgrounds. Leaders can learn from and with their teams. Ask them what they'd like you to continue to do or if there is anything you are not doing that could help support them.

3. Recognize and appreciate.

Give recognition to employee contributions. Feeling recognized for the work they do and appreciated for who they are can help individuals see the value in their work and how they are making a difference in the organization.

4. Create space for voices.

It is hard to feel heard and understood when we aren't in a setting that allows space for our voices. Consider these questions: Who on your team is intimidated by you? Who is speaking up? Who is being silenced? A tip here is that if you are the senior person in a situation, let the junior person speak first.

5. Pay attention if a team member comes to you with something to share.

Truly listening without judgment allows individuals to feel seen and heard. You don't have to agree with them, try to fix them, or influence the outcome of the situation. We can hold space for others by following this three-step process:

  • Acknowledge — Communicate that you understand the problem or situation.
  • Validate — Reflect their feelings and the impact of the situation back to them.
  • Make three offers — Suggest three things you can do in the moment that are within your role.

6. Listen to understand, not to respond or problem-solve.

A big barrier to effective communication is that we listen to reply, not to understand. When a team member is sharing something with us, we are often pre-loading what we will say back. We try to think about whether we agree or disagree with them or come up with any questions to ask or advice we might provide. Instead, I invite you to be completely present when they are talking and allow yourself a moment before responding or providing solutions.

A strategy to use here is to set the intention. When someone comes to you, before they start talking, politely ask: "What do you need from me? Do you need me to listen, advise, or intervene?" Asking this question can help guide their sharing and your listening.

Treating people how they want to be treated and using active listening strategies can make a difference. To cultivate listening skills, Kluger and Itzchakov (2022) suggest that rather than insisting on becoming a better listener overall, focus on one interaction at a time. All in all, cultivating listening will support the well-being of the listener, speaker, and organization as a whole (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022).

You want to make your team feel welcome at the table, but even more so, you want them to feel comfortable speaking up. Make it clear that you want to hear from your employees. Tell them that you want to understand their perspectives and suggestions, and then actually try to listen and understand. When people feel acknowledged and validated, they feel like they matter. They feel needed. We all want to know that we will be recognized if we speak up and that we will be respected and supported if we open up.

Perhaps a good place to start might be by creating a space where everyone feels seen, heard, and understood—like they belong.

We can make this a reality by listening.


Castro, D. R., Anseel, F., Kluger, A. N., Lloyd, K. J., & Turjeman-Levi, Y. (2018). Mere listening effect on creativity and the mediating role of psychological safety. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 12(4), 489–502.

Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121–146.

Kriz, T. D., Kluger, A. N., & Lyddy, C. J. (2021). Feeling heard: Experiences of listening (or not) at work. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Pery, S., Doytch, G., and Kluger, A. N. (2020). Management and leadership. In D. L. Worthington and G. D. Bodie (Eds.), The Handbook of Listening (pp. 163–179). Wiley-Blackwell.

Weinstein, N., Itzchakov, G., & Legate, N. (2022). The motivational value of listening during intimate and difficult conversations. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 16(2), 1–14.

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