Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to become a little wiser every day.
Do you crave being heard, to feel someone else really hears you, notices you, sees you, and that what you said matters to them? Today I will share with you an intriguing story, something counterintuitive I’m just on the edge of learning, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will understand one key reason that humans desire so much to be heard.
As you listen today, identify one person who could benefit from one insight from this podcast episode.
I was recently speaking with a psychiatrist. He has worked for many years with military patients. For example, one patient has been in combat many times. He’s jumped out of planes into highly dangerous situations and has, as a result, experienced brain trauma on lots of levels. This and many other patients like him are the kinds of complex cases he has to treat. But as I listened to him, to the psychiatrist, it became clear how frustrated he was, how exhausted he was, how burned out he often feels when he’s trying to help patients like this and many others like him because he feels the time pressure to help each patient within just a few minutes, and then the next person’s at the door. And then, often, each patient just expects him to just prescribe the medicine, just fill the order. They want him to be a medicine dispenser. They’ve learned this transactional type of experience. This is exhausting to him because he wants to actually help his patients, and much too often, this current situation means he treats only the surface symptom and doesn’t get to what’s really going on. No healing is taking place, no healing can take place.
What he wants in his dreams is to create an institution where he can help treat people with especially complex brain trauma and actually get to the bottom of it so that they can actually be helped deeply be healed. He added one more thing that I thought was fascinating. He said the main complaint I hear when I meet with patients is that despite them going to many different programs, a variety of different psychologists and therapists, some going to treatment programs that are 30 days long in all of that, they say that they have never really felt heard.
Think of that. Of course, in one sense, this frustration makes perfect instant sense to me. We live in a world where human experience operates at many, many different layers. Let’s say ten layers or a hundred layers, but then that same overly busy time-pressured world draws out of all of us the pretense of living only at the surface level. How are you? I’m fine. Let’s move on. When other people come to us with concerns, we have two minutes before the meeting. Let’s go. Let’s deal with the surface, and perhaps more serious even than this time-pressured condition where time pressure overrides our deep concern for each other is also the lack of skill in being able to get below the surface to accurately and rapidly identify what is really going on.
Well, this psychiatrist certainly seemed to resonate with this, and his frustration is analogous to all of ours. What he is experiencing is so similar to what all of us are experiencing with each other for reasons still somewhat out of reach for me; our ability to make people feel heard is proportional to our ability to help them or heal them. Similarly, our ability to help other people hear us is proportional to their ability to help or heal us. When we are too busy to really understand, we will be forever too busy because we’re never actually solving any of the problems that are coming at us. Literally, in this case, a psychiatrist who is so busy he just keeps medicating people at the surface level will forever be too busy, medicating people at the surface level, but it’s also true for other people. A team of two people who are too busy talking about each other will eventually just become toxic. A team who is too busy just emailing each other will just become transactional. Only a team of people who are willing to meet face-to-face and deal with the issues under the surface will become transformational.
Now it’s well established both in peer-reviewed research, but also in the lived experience of all of our lives that we want to be heard but not just want to be. We crave being heard. That’s true personally. It’s true professionally. And when we are not heard, it’s not like the need just goes away. Maybe people stop talking about it. An employee who is not heard by the manager does not simply stop wanting to be heard. They go home and talk about it there. They go and talk about it with the other members of the team. A customer who is not heard in customer service doesn’t just go completely silent. They talk about their bad experience with everyone at home and everyone at work, and they share their news around.
A person who desires to be heard, but perhaps they’re more introverted in their style or perhaps based on other personal tendencies, may go silent at the surface, but that does not mean that need has disappeared or dissipated.
One question that has been pulling at me is why. That it exists, we know, but why? Why do we yearn for it so much? I’m on a journey to better understand that question and let me share one interesting insight I gained from reading an article in Psychology Today. It’s by Loretta Breuning, in an article called The Urge to Be Heard at Your Core.
She writes the following:
“A human infant is the most fragile bit of protoplasm on earth. A newborn gazelle can run with the herd the day after it’s born. An elephant walks before its first meal because that’s how it gets to the nipple. A lizard runs away from home the instant it cracks out of its shell, and if it doesn’t run fast enough a parent eats it. Humans are born with no survival skills except the ability to cry out for help, and to learn from the experience. But we do that well.”
“When a newborn cries, it doesn’t know what milk is. It cries because low blood sugar triggers cortisol, the brain’s emergency alert signal. In animals, cortisol activates survival behaviors, like finding food or escaping predators. Humans are not born with survival knowledge. We’re born with lots of neurons, but few connections between them. So a newborn can’t do anything to meet its own needs except cry.”
“Imagine feeling your survival is threatened and not being able to do anything about it. That’s the state we’re all born into. Fortunately, crying works! Relief arrives. Soon, the baby feels good, and the brain learns from the good feeling. We learn to expect relief, and that gradually transforms crying into conscious acts of communication.”
“But as soon as you learn that your hunger gets relieved, new emergencies crop up. You learn that the person who relieves your distress sometimes disappears! You experience pain when your body suddenly falls! Pain and the expectation of pain trigger cortisol, and all you can do is cry. So the first experience in each brain, the foundation on which all later experience rests, is the sense that you will die if you are not heard. A baby doesn’t think this cognitively. It feels it in the wordless neurochemical way that an animal experiences survival threats.”
“And that is why part of your brain longs to be seen and heard as if your life depended on it.”
“More complex ways of reacting to cortisol grow with time. An adult may not even notice the insecurity at the core of their brain’s experience. You may think you’re better off without your primal feelings of vulnerability. But they are part of being human. The more you know where they come from, the less effort you waste finding things to blame them on. Understanding our primal fragility is very freeing.”(1)
She goes on a little later in the article to express some of the advantages that come from this fragility at birth. She writes:
“It [leaves] babies so fragile that only the strong communicators survived. Mothers good at interpreting their infants’ signals kept their DNA alive. Communication skills were naturally selected for.”
“Second,” she says, “we get to learn survival skills instead of coming pre-programmed for survival in a specific environment. Animals die when they leave their home range, but humans can learn to live almost anywhere.”
“But,” she explains, “we pay a high price for this ability to learn. We have to learn everything. When a baby sees a hand in front of his face, he doesn’t know he’s attached to it, much less that he has the potential to control it. A baby must learn about his hands from experience.”(1)
Let’s go back to a particular line in this article. So the first experience in each brain, the foundation on which all later experience rests, is the sense that you will die if you are not heard. So there we have it, a need as primal as any other, a craving that really must in some way be satisfied in order for any other needs to be met, and yet combine it with this complexity that there’s so many layers. It means that for a person to really be heard, we have to help them get below all of these layers in order to identify it – what the real issue is. They may not even know what the issue is. But what happens if you can be the person to do it? What happens if you become the manager who can help people around them be heard?
Think of what that does to the relationships. Think of what that does to making people feel safe, to helping them feel that they matter. To be able to then operate as a manager in a way that is effective. Think about the advantage if you’re an entrepreneur, if you can help the customer to feel heard in the product you design, in the service you’re offering, or when it doesn’t go right in customer service so that suddenly people feel heard.
I remember one of my first jobs at university was to help in customer service with people who were furious about their experience, a very expensive service that they signed up for, and then the service was not really up to grade at the time. And so the concerns came to me, and I found that almost nobody wanted to actually have their money back if they could be fully heard. That’s what I have found is the real issue in most situations.
Think if you can be the parent who actually helps your teenager feel heard. You might have to listen and ask questions to get below the surface. Of course, you’ll have to be patient.
So what’s the actionable advice here? Let me share an insight from an article called Why We Need To Feel Heard. It’s from the School of Life. The authors write:
“One of our deepest longings – deeper than we even perhaps recognise day to to day – is that other people should acknowledge certain of our feelings. We want that – at key moments – our sufferings should be understood, our anxieties noticed and our sadness lent legitimacy. We don’t want others necessarily to agree with all our feelings, but what we crave”, there’s that word again, “is that they at least validate them. When we are furious, we want another person to say: I can see that you’ve been driven to distraction. It must feel very chaotic for you inside right now for you. When we are sad, we want someone to say: I know you’re unusually down and I understand the reasons why. And when we can’t take it all any more, we want someone gently to say: It’s been too much for you; I recognise that so well; of course it has.”
“It sounds desperately simple, and in a way it is. And yet how little of this emotional nectar of acknowledgement we ever in fact receive or gift to one another.” (2)
Well, that’s something we can do today, you and I in those relationships that are strained, and I guarantee you that every strained relationship has at its core the feeling that one or both parties are not feeling heard. We can offer this. We can shelve our own agenda for a moment, and we can put into words what the other person is feeling, what we are observing. That might not take us all the way to the core, but it certainly gets us below level one, and that is a meaningful start.
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why did it matter so much to you, and who is one person you can share this idea with within the next 24 to 48 hours?
If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.
(1) www.psychologytoday.com. (n.d.). The Urge to Be Heard at Your Core | Psychology Today. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201109/the-urge-be-heard-your-core.
(2) Why We Need to Feel Heard. (2022). The School of Life. [online] 24 Mar. Available at: https://www.theschooloflife.com/article/why-we-need-to-feel-heard/ [Accessed 24 Apr. 2022].