How to Listen Like
How to listen like Doug Emhoff
October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021
"To actually meet people of all kinds all around the country and really listen and really hear what's going on in their lives...For a kid who grew up in New York and L.A., and spent most of my life in New York, L.A., San Francisco and D.C., it just really opened my eyes."
That’s what Doug Emhoff learned while campaigning with his wife Kamala Harris. As he traveled around the United States, he made a point to listen to the stories of the people of America. He heard what they had to say and realized the impact that it made on him.
The campaign trail led to the White House. Kamala Harris became the first female, the first black, and the first Asian-American United States Vice President. Emhoff also made history as the first Second Gentleman and also the first Jewish spouse, of any gender, for the presidency or vice presidency.
Emhoff had got a taste of politics when Harris was running for various positions in their home state of California. But the Biden run was on a much larger stage and this world of politics was entirely new to him.
Emhoff wrote in a GQ article, “The moment Kamala joined the ticket, I was swept along for the ride. It was a pretty humbling experience. I had never given a stump speech or worked a (COVID-safe) rope line, and let’s be honest—no one knew who I was. All of a sudden, people were asking me for photos. Reporting on every word I said. Speculating about my policy stances and thoughts on a future administration’s priorities. It was surreal.”
Emhoff looked at how he could help the campaign team and discovered it was by listening. “I called as many field organizers as I could to thank them. I asked them why they got in this fight, and then I just listened. I spoke with a college student in Denver who was going door-to-door to organize her dorm. A veteran and home health worker … using every spare second to advocate for good jobs and quality, affordable health care for all. A young woman from North Omaha, who was excited to cast her first ballot for the first Black woman vice president.”
Emhoff would take detailed notes on what he had listened to on the trail and would share them with Harris. The stories resonated with him and he realized how much was riding on the election. That idea of using listening to help and support others is a theme that runs throughout Emhoff’s life. Emhoff’s long-time friend for nearly 30 years, Matt Walden, said, “He’s just a wonderful guy: smart, grounded and wise. He’s easy to talk to and he’s also a really good listener.”
Emhoff has said about Harris that, “Our relationship and the way I roll, my whole life has just been to support the people I love unequivocally, and they support me. The whole thing has been based on parity and mutual respect.” Two of the essential principles that make for a great listener are parity and respect. They show you value what the other person has to say and are giving them your full focus.
Emhoff and Harris met on a blind date in 2013 and married a year later. At the time, he was a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and she was California's Attorney General. Before the date, Emhoff sent a text to Harris and then called her the next morning. "I left this ridiculous voicemail, which she has saved and plays back to me on our anniversary every year," Emhoff said about listening to the voicemail together.
The couple has exceptionally busy lives but they still make a point to stay connected. One way they do this is to have dinner together and listening to each other talk about their days. Harris shared, “When we do have dinner together — it depends, because we’re going to different states a lot — we meet up at night. Sometimes, it’s very late at night and one of us is scarfing down food that the other has prepared. It has been often the case that one of us is eating at the table while the other is bringing the food and then listening to the day.”
Their marriage is a first for Harris and the second for Emhoff. He has two adult children, Cole and Ella, with this ex-wife, Kerstin. Kamala is close friends with Kerstin. The children affectionately call Harris “Momala.” They are an excellent example of making a modern, blended family work by co-parenting with communication and listening.
Ella commented, “It’s a cool dynamic we all have. And I think it is a good model to show that you can have this and this isn’t weird. Like it’s not weird to be friends or have a good relationship with your ex. It’s actually very healthy.”
Kerstin and Doug were married for 16 years before their divorce. Harris was nervous about meeting his kids and said that Kerstin has played a pivotal role in her becoming closer to them. "One of the keys to my relationship with Cole and Ella is their mom. We are friends. We have a very modern family ... The thing about blended families — if everyone approaches it in the way that there's plenty of love to share, then it works."
This approach has clearly worked for Emhoff and his family. Kerstin was even there on Inauguration Day to support Harris as she was sworn in as Vice President. That’s when Emhoff’s family joined another blended family in the White House. The President and First Lady also are a blended family and it is the second marriage for both. Emhoff has a close relationship with Dr. Jill Biden who was the Second Lady during the Obama administration. Emhoff wrote, “…I could not have a better friend and partner than Dr. Jill Biden, whose example and advice has been invaluable in navigating every step of this journey.”
As the country’s first Second Gentleman, Emhoff has continued his listening sessions just as he did on the campaign trail. He’s been to Raleigh, Memphis, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and many other towns to hear what the American people have to say about a variety of topics such as gender equity in the workplace and small business ownership. Emhoff tweets regularly from his handle @SecondGentleman about his travels around the country.
There are no official duties for the Second Gentleman and Emhoff says he wants to focus on social justice issues given his background in law. He’s on leave from his law firm and recently joined the Georgetown University Law Center faculty and is teaching a course titled "Entertainment Law Disputes."
When he was practicing law, Emhoff handled cases around intellectual property disputes and false advertising. Perhaps his most known case was when he defended advertising agency TBWA after Taco Bell blamed it for ripping off the idea for the chihuahua. Attorney Matthew Johnson is one of Emhoff’s closest friends. He said in an interview that Emhoff “…honed a reputation as having a soft touch with clients, patiently listening even when some were being a little bit irrational. He would give clients this cool-headed, thoughtful advice.”
Experts say that being vulnerable is a key aspect of being a good listener. This is because vulnerability makes you seem authentic and real during a conversation. Looking the speaker in the eye, listening to what they have to say, and being willing to give time and attention to the moment are all acts of vulnerability.
Emhoff was thrust into the spotlight in his role as Second Gentleman and he spoke about the importance of vulnerability in his new public role, saying, "You've got to be vulnerable. You've got to be willing to let people see you, who you are, so they trust you ... And that's kind of how I roll."
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