Editor's note: Kaylor Hildenbrand is senior manager, innovation insights at Georgia-Pacific LLC. 

It’s embedded in our memories as a marketing campaign for a well-known wireless company – the query, “Can you hear me now?” I think, however, that the tagline speaks to more than just cellphone coverage.

The need to be heard and acknowledged, perhaps validated, is everywhere in society. The digital age in which we live makes it more obvious and yet it is a deeply human trait.

We tweet and we post and then . . . we wait.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a common philosophical question. If we tweet and post and revise our profiles and yet receive no retweets, no “favorites,” no likes, no followers – do we exist?

As a qualitative researcher, I have watched the industry evolve. Where we used to conduct research face-to-face (and still do), with increasing frequency we now ask people to post commentary to online bulletin boards, to upload videos and to complete similar almost anonymous tasks all in an effort to gather their perceptions, to peer into their world. Technology allows us to do more with less and takes us places we might otherwise never go.

Not long ago, I completed an online study, video ethnography, and it hit me that here I had real people spending their time and effort sharing a lot of information with me and the only feedback they likely received (other than the incentive check) might have been an auto-generated response through the platform, “Your submission has been received.” I began to think they might have wondered whether their video was helpful, did they answer my questions, did they do a good job? Did anyone watch their video? Did anyone hear – and value – what they had to say? 

I recently learned that a well-known television personality who has conducted more than 3,700 interviews with presidents, CEOs, celebrities and the like said that after the camera stopped rolling, nearly every time, no matter how polished the individual, her interviewee would ask, “How’d I do?” 

There is an intrinsic human need for validation.

As a researcher, we are trained to never offer an opinion on a person’s response. That’s a given. Yet I believe there is tremendous value in making sure each person who participates knows they have been heard and that what they had to say, whatever it is, matters. In face-to-face conversations, it’s easy. A smile, a nod, an “I hear you.” I remind others in a group conversation to remember to focus our attention on the person addressing the group. I don’t let people get away with saying, “Yeah, I agree with what he said.” I ask that person to respond to me in his or her own words. It gives them power and reassurance. It encourages them to share their unique voice.

Technology gives us fantastic tools and yet it can sometimes create a wall between us. We must remember that there is a person on the other side. And on a human level, we desire – we need – engagement.

The digital age already in play and, recently accelerated by the pandemic, facilitates communication from a functional perspective, yet does it facilitate understanding? COVID-19 seems to have created what I like to call a “culture of care” where we are experiencing a new level of empathy. I have seen it in my research work, in B2B customer engagements and with internal conversations with colleagues. Much of the pretense of suits and ties, perfect makeup and every hair in place has been stripped away to uncover a new level of transparency and humanness that includes crying children, barking (and snoring!) dogs and hoodies.

Bringing the sense that we are more than our titles or our roles to our work as researchers is key to moving beyond the mere gathering of data. That is when we build rapport, create connections and fully see, appreciate and HEAR one another.

A presenter looks outward from the stage for engagement, acknowledgement from the audience and feeds off that energy. Imagine presenting to an empty auditorium. Even the most confident and passionate speaker would quickly feel deflated.

As a parent, it is important to let our children know we hear them. It is through that validation that they build self-esteem. They learn that they matter. The child in the classroom who raises his hand over and over to answer the teacher’s questions – neglect to call on him too many times and he will stop trying, feeling overlooked and unimportant.

Whether it is in personal relationships, business communication or this world of research, let’s all try to remember that while there is value in the gathering and sharing of information, there is greater, lasting value intrinsically in being heard. Give that honor, the honor of being heard, to someone today.