To Hear Beneath the Words

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” – Peter Drucker

Listening to Unspoken Words


I am a threat to shriek out an epiphany or some form of “oh, I get it” while reading a book, scrolling through my Twitter feed or listening to a podcast. Ask my partner, he will readily attest to my passionately expressing ah-ha moments. Recently, I subscribed to Super Soul Conversations which is a podcast featuring the audio of episodes from the Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) daytime series. With the goal of delivering insight and inspirations from renowned leaders to awaken viewers to their best selves, Oprah and top thinkers (e.g. Iyanla Vanzant), authors (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg), successful business leaders (e.g. Howard Schultz) and the like discuss the joys and tumults of their life experiences — including teachable moments from which we all can learn. During one episode featuring Iyanla Vanzant, she and Oprah discussed how people articulate their needs and thoughts in words that we hear and understand but do not fully unpack.

Vanzant discusses her ability to hear beneath the words as a way to dissect what people say to more clearly understand their true desires and needs. I understood Vanzant’s point as neither amateurishly psychoanalyzing your spouse, colleagues or anyone within earshot nor exposing verbose shysters attempting to swindle you out of money or your good ideas. My takeaway from the podcast involved heeding lessons learned from my own life experiences which have equipped me with an intellectual listening device of sorts to hear the truth not being told — another of Vanzant’s maxims.

This should not be likened to willfully twisting people’s words, putting words in folks’ mouths, or hearing what you wanted to hear as a form of deflecting your insecurities. My interpretation of hearing beneath the words is acknowledging people’s presence, opinions and fears, even though they are not outright articulated. I also understood Oprah and Vanzant points as – both personal and professional experiences can be honed into core competencies such as thoughtful leadership.

Active Listening as a Core Competency

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After I finished listening to the podcast, I recalled past encounters with colleagues and members of my team. I am now able to discern what they were conveying to me — that everything from the content of and the way I deliver my feedback in organization-wide meetings, my body language at any given point and answers to seemingly minor questions shape their workplace reality. Sure, this may seem unremarkable in the eyes of most in today’s professional environment. For me, it represented a shift in my contribution in the workplace, a change from being the one who solely and dutifully works toward the organizational mission and vision to a person who also shapes how others perceive the validity and importance of said mission and vision. It is an exhilarating yet treacherous responsibility to hold.

There was a time in my life where asserting myself induced sweat-drenched anxiety, even if invited to do so in a safe space. I was raised in a household headed by an alcoholic father who was abusive and destructively opinionated — which I later learned was rooted in fear and abuse my father’s childhood bestowed upon him. He terrorized the “straight talk” out of my mother and me, leaving us to express ourselves beneath the words just to keep the peace. It did not stop there, both maternal and paternal relatives within my extended family treated accountability like the begging relative who owes everyone $20 — with total avoidance at all costs.

I was conditioned from the beginning to be uncomfortable with and even oppositional to stating or simply acknowledging truths that were not being told. “Why haven’t I brought home a girl from college for the family to meet?” Well it is not because I am gay — but it really was the case — it is because “I’m very busy studying, working, or insert denial.” That did not stop me from talking or communicating entirely, I simply learned a safer way to convey meaning by embracing storytelling — one of six skills author Daniel H. Pink thinks will make or break professionals in our 21st Century global economy.

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Pink discusses storytelling as a concept that “sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else.” Storytelling allows us to contextualize things that may seem too abstract or too heavy or even irrelevant for everyday conversations as well as our routine comings and goings. I strive to make as many decisions as possible within the parameters of robust data and best practices. I have also accepted incidence rates, bell curves and statistical significance can only go so far in garnering community buy-in or winning over key decision makers. C-suite executives in boardrooms and on golf courses across the globe have only so much tolerance for financial and accounting metrics when seeking input on how best to make high-level decisions.

“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” —  Roger C. Schank, Cognitive Scientist

I see Pink’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling and Vanzant’s point of hearing beneath the words as two sides of the same coin. I use humor and details from everyday situations to power my storytelling, speaking in analogies when appropriate (and at times just for the hell of it) to disarm topics that could potentially unfold explosively. I have resorted to storytelling to further illuminate great ideas as well.

Admittedly, my use of storytelling is not Nobel Peace Prize worthy stuff. My point is, recognizing and harnessing the power of these critical thinking techniques can make life far less exhausting. For example, discussing my sexual orientation with my father — a man who believes your true friends are dead Presidents donning the United States currency and no other living soul — required the Kevlar equivalent of storytelling. It challenged me to say exactly what I meant beneath words that were safely distant to anything overtly gay. Did it kill me a little inside? Perhaps. I knew the importance of meeting him where he was and surrendering to it — not in a weakened white-flag-waving sort of way but in a thoughtful, arriving-at-acceptance sort of way. Once the potential for warfare and humiliation are taken out of any situation, listeners and other conversationalists disarm their shot-now-aim-later defense mechanisms. Importantly, being able to hear beneath the words informs you of whether those around you are wearing armor in the first place.

Once Contextualized, Common Workplace Language is Quite Revealing


In the workplace, a statement as ambiguous as “I’m not sure about that” has the power to derail massive projects and incinerate the most solid of ideas as if those words are along a project’s critical path. It is one of the most loaded statements in today’s workforce, that, and cringe-inducing “We’ve always done things this way.” I have found the meaning beneath those words of “I’m not sure about that” to be any variation of:

  • I would rather not dominate the conversation yet play a more supportive role on the team
  • I am uncomfortable speaking up because I fear stepping on people’s toes
  • I do not hear you because I am completely disengaged which may or may not be your fault
  • Leadership appears to be incompetent and hypocritical, so nothing matters
  • I am truly and honestly unsure how this idea, project, tweet, etc. fit into our overall goal.

As with any situation, there may be many different reasons explaining why people respond to situations the way they do. Using storytelling in these circumstances to suss out the meaning beneath the words can bring about actionable results including but not limited to:

  • Taking a step back to ensure group think has not supplanted brainstorming or individuality
  • Assessing team dynamics to ensure the most expressive members are not unintentionally overpowering the reserved ones
  • Developing or editing annual strategic plans — which inadvertently may be missing the point — to more clearly articulate your departmental or organizational mission, vision and purpose
  • Reassess company-wide policies that may be overbearing and antiquated, thus driving the best of your workforce out of the door
  • Evaluate your managerial style to ensure you are leading by influence and inspiration and not via authoritative tendencies (e.g. I am the boss so do as I say.)

What Have I Heard Beneath the Words?

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Being able to hear beneath the words can bring about affirmation and reassurance. As stated earlier I recently became fully aware that others within my professional sphere viewed my input as a barometer to which they should gauge their own behavior and interpretations. This point was not overtly conveyed, I realized it through seemingly unrelated words.

It was a situation in which those within my immediate circle of managerial oversight conveyed to me beneath their words that we see you, hear you, and will align our actions and ways of processing workplace stimuli in accordance to that. We will lower psychological and protective barriers. We will willingly reassess conclusions we may have already drawn and remain open to others’ ideas. We will share our thoughts with you about a specific project or office dynamic in an unfettered and uncensored way, because you have earned that right. We are a team and we are prepared to run through the fire with you.

While it may be unlikely your team and colleagues use this exact language to describe how they view you and your leadership style, they will find a way to convey it beneath their words.


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