News & Media: Spotlight
Words That Matter

By Hamed Babai
Posted on November 1, 2023

Coworkers collaborating

I recently watched the hit TV series Blackbird. Jimmy, a felon charged with drug trafficking, receives an offer from the FBI to release him from prison. There’s only one catch. He must first befriend a serial killer and get a confession about the location of his victims.

As Jimmy deepens his connection with the serial killer, Larry, he soon taps into Larry’s psyche, gains his trust, and shares authentic stories that encourage Larry to do the same. This is a masterclass in developing empathy and actively listening to another human. Even a murderer discloses details about his crimes. However, it isn’t just Larry who changes. In his effort to connect to someone else, Jimmy becomes a much more thoughtful and introspective person.

Blackbird TV series

Jimmy and Larry meet and connect. (Blackbird, 2022, Apple TV+)

One of our most important resources is our human connections. Our relationships bring new perspectives, experiences, and knowledge bases to help us live more effectively. However, in order to connect with others, we must first learn to ask better questions and actively listen to what they have to say.

In a team, this ability to connect will result in strengthening partnerships, instilling hope, and leading more purposefully. It will bolster trust and creative energy by encouraging others to share their ideas. By tapping into collective intelligence and looking at problems from multiple perspectives, we unlock synergy and an ability to see things better, which ultimately allows us to solve issues more efficiently.

“Seventeen percent of U.S. adults report that they felt loneliness ‘a lot of the day yesterday,’”
Washington Post, April 2023

Loneliness has become more critical than ever now that we spend more time in the digital world. Communicating through digital channels does allow us to reach a wider audience, but in doing so we often miss tone, body language, and gestures–all subliminal cues that impact our message. As a business owner, I could really feel how COVID isolation in 2020 undermined our communication in the office.

I strongly believe our lives find meaning with others. While our behaviors have drastically shifted, the primary human needs to be heard, acknowledged, and loved to remain intact. Today, more than ever, we need these connections to fulfill our social needs. However, in order to truly bond with others, we need to focus on purposeful communication.

In Ask Powerful Questions, Will Wise breaks good communication into five steps:

  • Clear Intentions“I am willing to know you.”
  • Building Rapport and Being Present“I see you.”
  • Openness“I hear you.”
  • Active Listening“I get you.”
  • Empathy (The Power of Connection)“I feel with you.”

Clear intentions are the prerequisite of any successful endeavor, which includes bonding with each other. You must know where you are heading before thinking of the path. With clear intentions, you also know when you have completed your journey. After all, knowing our why is the fuel that drives us toward our goals.


Developing rapport means building trust. In her book The Power of Rapport: An Essential Tool for Connection, Samantha Worthington explains that rapport “puts the mind at ease” and “ensures that the other person feels more relaxed as you make suggestions.” As you build trust, you can connect on a deeper level with a potential client or teammate when it comes to uncovering their concerns and needs. As a result, rapport opens communication channels and encourages people to share more about themselves (Worthington 2023).

While rapport builds the trust necessary for good communication, you can’t develop rapport without purposeful questions. A good question must be clear and must come from an open mind. When curiosity drives your questions, you tap into an uncertain space in your mind in which you feel vulnerable. Not knowing how someone will respond puts you at a disadvantage, and what’s more vulnerable than putting yourself at risk? Curiosity is filled with authenticity and can be deeply energizing at its best. When you’re curious, people feel the truth behind your words and are more willing to engage in a conversation.

Finally, open-ended questions prompt others for more creative responses. They encourage energy to flow, dance, and imbue your conversations with meaning. If words and thoughts are a blank canvas, then our questions are the brush that creates art in our lives. They sharpen our focus, push us to think critically, and point us toward our desired outcome. A closed-ended question such as “Do you like watching TV?” creates a limited space of possible answers (in this case, Yes or No). This is not a big space for exercising creativity and imagination. The person asking the question is in full control and isn’t vulnerable to a wide range of possible answers.

A non-judgmental ear can save lives.

When was the last time you felt someone was genuinely listening to you without waiting for their turn to speak? A non-judgmental listener provides a safe space and an outlet to expel what is deep within you. Non-judgment shuts down our critical mind and allows us to focus on our sensory system, be present, and grasp the true meaning behind words. I believe one of the most genuine gifts we can give others is our undivided attention.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” said Greek philosopher Epictetus. Listening is an active effort. It is not only the words that matter but the motivation behind them. It is about the feelings that drive people to say what they say.

In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss describes intense hostage negotiations in which hostage takers demand something from the FBI in exchange for releasing the hostages. While the negotiations are different, they’re all a series of very short conversations.

What’s truly fascinating about these negotiations is that the FBI brings a dozen expert agents in the field of negotiations to listen to these short calls. Why would the FBI call so many people to process so few words? The reason is what we say doesn’t matter nearly as much as how we say it. To understand another person’s reality, we need empathy, active listening, and the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes. In the hostage negotiations, Voss explains, every agent has a unique perspective. Every agent can envision a different dimension of the hostage taker’s life, which ultimately helps the team uncover what’s going on in the head and heart of the hostage taker.

Empathy wall art

Remember a time you opened up in a conversation only to feel a disconnect. You might have noticed the insincerity. You might have even walked away thinking that person didn’t truly “get” you.

Empathy comes from a neutral base in which you are brave enough to listen to the truth and deal with it. When we have pre-formed ideas, we lose our capability to see the world from a different perspective. Humans are hardly ever influenced by a critical or judgmental person. Sympathy—which comes from a place of pity or sorrow–may discourage a person from sharing at all.
Choosing empathy, however, allows our relationships to move toward connection. It ultimately gives us a more nuanced understanding of other people and what lies under the surface.

I would like to close this article with a translation of Saadi Shirazi’s famous poem “Bani Adam.”

Man’s sons are parts of one reality
Since all have sprung from one identity;
If one part of a body’s hurt, the rest
Cannot remain unmoved and undistressed;
If you’re not touched by others’ pain, the name
Of “man” is one you cannot rightly claim.

I believe we can become whole only by getting to know the joy, suffering, and motivations of others. Without these ties, contentment is not conceivable, and existence has no meaning. But we can choose to listen. We can choose to care. We can choose a world in which we see beauty in uncovering the stories of others.