Just listen

Earlier this year I went on a short course on Thinking Partnerships - part of the stable of approaches developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think fame.  This course was run by Linda Aspey, of Coaching for Leaders.

The Thinking Partnership approach

There are a few aspects of the Time to Think approach which are worth noting: the ten components of a Thinking Environment; the uncovering of limiting assumptions and the use of incisive questions.  I've found these powerful in coaching and other situations.

But the thing that really struck me on the course, and in the practice sessions I had with other participants, is the power of just listening.

Actually, it's not just listening.

It's paying "generative attention": promising not to interrupt; focusing on the person who's doing the thinking - whether they are thinking aloud or silently; exuding a warm neutrality, neither praising nor dismissing what they say.

This kind of listening has a powerful impact on the person who is being listened to. In that space of acceptance and ease, they explore and solve their own problems. It is rather marvellous to be the mirror for someone who is combing through the tangle of their confusion or distress: doing (almost) nothing, and yet catalysing such great work. And having the privilege to observe them doing it.

Listening as support

In another part of my life, I'm a member of a volunteer community support team.  We promise to listen confidentially (within the usual boundaries) to people who need some kind of support through a hard time.  We don't offer advice.  For some of the team, the idea that 'just listening' could be enough was hard to accept at first. It feels awkward. It feels like such a minor intervention.

Our team leader shared some wonderful quotes on listening:

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.

- Margaret J. Wheatley

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

- Shel Silverstein

You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us, and in the other person. That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening. You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing expectations for an unusual conversation

This kind of conversation is unusual. It's not the turn-taking social interaction which we're used to. When we're doing this kind of supportive listening, it's not our job to make things right for the other person.  And it's not their job to make things right for us.  (This heartbreaking piece by Decca Aitkenhead describes how she learnt to reassure her friends that she was coping bravely, following a devastating bereavement.)

So it's a good idea to invite the other person to this kind of conversation - to explain that you're planning to listen and not interrupt, and not to give advice or share your own story - and for them to accept or decline the invitation. 

For the community listening, we have a simple form of words to help people know what to expect:

We aim to offer a confidential listening service, so we’d expect that you will do most of the talking and [your community listening team member] will do most of the listening. We’re not there to share our own stories, make judgements or offer advice. We will listen, maybe ask questions, and point you towards other sources of support if that’s appropriate.

Don't be an expert - at least, not yet

The trouble with being an expert is that you are expected to come up with solutions really fast. Or you think you are. Doubly so if you're an advocate or a campaigner. You can be tripped up by your own assumptions about your role, and stumble into taking a position much too early. And once you've taken a position, it feels hard to climb down from it and explore other options.

Which can be a big mistake.

Don't be an expert, yet

Pretty much every project you'll ever work on has more than one noble aim (or, at least, more than one legitimate aim). On time, on budget. For people, profit and planet. Truth and beauty.

Not much point designing the shiniest, coolest, sexiest thing that can't be built.  Or the safest, most ethical, handcrafted whoosit that's too expensive for anyone to buy.  Or running an organic, fair trade eco-retreat which can only be reached by helicopter.

If a critical variable needs to 'lose' in order that the thing you have committed yourself to can 'win', you've set it up wrong.

Why set it up as a zero-sum game, when it could be that there's a win-win solution enabling everyone to get everything they want?  (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but once again I'd have to kill you.)

Not everything is a fight

If you frame it as a fight, you'll get a fight.  If you frame it as a complex problem with a mutually-beneficial solution that hasn't been found yet - you may just get it.

But how can you help the conversation be a dialogue rather than a gun-fight?

You need to stay in that uncomfortable place of not knowing.  Listen well.  Ask questions.

Above all, maintain an attitude of respect, curiosity and trust.

Want to explore further?

I'll be talking more about this at #DareConf Mini on 20th January - still time to join me and some awesome speakers.

And here's a New Year's gift to help: £100 off if you use code PENNY when booking.