Becoming a Thinking (and Listening) Partner

Two people communicating by telepathy. Digital illustration.

The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.  Nancy Kline

Five years ago, as an adjunct to my coach training, I participated in a virtual course on Executive Coaching. At the end of that course, several of us decided to keep learning together and organized a book club. After a few months, the group ended up at a steady four–myself and three other women. We’ve met every two months since then, each time focusing on a different book. Through those book discussions we explored new ways of thinking about our work, our purpose, and about how people learn, grow and develop.

A few months ago, we decided that it was time to take our virtual conversations to a new level and to gather in person. One of the books we had read was “Time to Think” by Nancy Kline. Since we all were particularly struck by Kline’s book, we did a little research and found out that we could organize a workshop for just the four of us. So, last weekend, Sara Hart, who has worked closely with Kline for decades, led us in learning about and practicing the Time to Think process.

The heart of coaching, I’ve long believed, is listening. Listening intently and with full presence. This weekend, using the Time to Think process, I felt the power of listening in new ways. And, I experienced what happened to me when someone just listened.

Over the three days together we learned to conduct a very structured Thinking Partners conversation. In it, you simply ask a person what they want to think about–and what their thoughts are. Then you listen. And listen. And listen some more. Finally, when your partner has said all that they have to say, you ask whether there’s more that they are thinking or feeling. And you listen, and listen, and listen some more. And, when they’ve completed that–you ask again. And you ask until everything has been said or thought. Typically, somewhere along the line, the “thinker” has begun to think or say things that they haven’t thought before. Sometimes, it takes awhile before the thinking is fresh and new. Especially when we’re talking about topics that have been on our mind and where we’ve been stuck.

Once we think about everything that we can related to our topic, our partner asks us if there’s anything more we want from the conversation. Much of the time the answer will be no, we’ve covered it just by thinking it out on our own. Sometimes, there’s something more. If there is, we work with our partner in a process of uncovering assumptions that might be getting in our way and result in our being stuck. We worked to replace those with different, “liberating,” assumptions and see how that can help us to get unstuck. This last part is a little trickier–and I don’t recommend doing it at home without at least reading more (the book describes the process.)

What I took away after three days was the power of listening with absolutely no other agenda than paying full attention to another person. I realized how rare it is to listen without feeling the need to ask a great question, paraphrase brilliantly or reply with an incredibly insightful response. I listened fully and completely–and was listened to in the same way. I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted–and that I wouldn’t interrupt. We were absolutely present to the other person, allowing them time, allowing them silence, respecting their thinking, appreciating them. We maintained comfortable eye contact–demonstrating that nothing was more important to us than what they had to think.

It was an amazing gift. The four of us have now set up ongoing thinking calls that we’re doing on Skype. We’re practicing this new “technology” with one another. We’re also trying to figure out how this fits into the rest of our lives.

Even in just a few days I’ve discovered that I can show up differently with a client. I’m finding I’m much less worried about finding the “right” question, because listening fully is such a gift. And, when I do, the right question makes itself known. Or, sometimes, I listen a little longer, and realize that my client’s thinking has gone in a different direction–one that is even better for them.

I wish each of you the gift of being truly listened to. I encourage you to try out “just” listening and see what you discover. Enjoy!

Update: I’ve expanded on some of what I wrote and added a very powerful and simple practice  in a post for Actionable, called The Power of a Pause. Check it out!

The Art of Receiving Feedback

Feedback Globe Open Door Opinions Reviews Ratings CommentsEach year I seem to run across a book that I find myself recommending to–well–everyone. This year it’s Thanks for the Feedback, by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. In the words of the authors, feedback is “how we learn from life.” Yet, we have a really hard time taking it in. We are quite good at finding all kinds of reasons to push back on feedback–and to see it as wrong. When others tell us (either gracefully or gracelessly) how they experience us or what they want us to do or be differently–we can find a myriad of ways to reject their feedback. (This is true even for those of us who in our heads can agree with the oft-taught premise that “feedback is a gift.”)

The answer to this dilemma, according to the authors, is to become adept at learning from and seeking feedback–even feedback that is given very poorly. In this way we develop our capacity for seeing and understanding ourselves more clearly–and in relationship to others. According to the authors, there are a few core skills we need to master to get there:

  • Recognizing and managing our resistance
  • Engaging in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity
  • Finding insight in all feedback to help us grow
  • Learning to ask for what we need

The authors spend the majority of the book sharing a myriad of ways to manage ourselves in conversation so that we can build and exercise our capacity to receive feedback. And, while I’d recommend this book to anyone–I especially recommend it to leaders–including those who have focused their efforts on learning to give feedback. My suggestion is that learning to receive feedback is equally–if not more–important. On top of that--you’re bound to learn more about giving feedback as you learn to receive it well.

The Flavors of Feedback

In the summary that I wrote for Actionable Books, I talk about the three flavors of feedback–evaluation, appreciation and coaching and how we often get feedback that is different from what we want or need because we don’t distinguish between these types of feedback. That’s one big takeaway from the book. Negotiate the conversation to be in alignment–get the feedback you need.

The other core construct offered by the authors is that there are, when you boil it down, only three essential triggers for feedback–truth (the substance of the feedback triggers us), relationship (the giver of the feedback triggers us) and identity (the trigger hits a chord about who we are–and challenges our sense of our self.) Various different tools are provided to work with those different triggers.

Spot the Label

Feedback is often given in language that the authors call “labels”–or language this is too generic to be helpful. In fact, when we interpret this generic language (e.g., “you should be more confident”) on our own–we are likely to hear something different from what was intended. Our interpretation of being more confident might be radically different from what the feedback giver intended. So, while you might think the feedback mean that you should act as if you know an answer–the giver could have meant that you need to be confident in saying you don’t know something. Get the idea?

The antidote? Listen for the labels and ask questions–ask to understand what the label means, what examples the feedback giver can offer. Imagine how much more you’ll learn! The challenge in spotting the label is more about remembering to listen for labels. Once you start noticing you’re likely to find that it’s not that hard to ask the questions.


Working with switchtracking is one of my favorite tools–probably because I realized how much it happens (read: how much I do it!) and how much it shuts down learning. Switchtracking happens when you receive feedback–for example, your boss reproaches you for being late with a report you owe. Instead of responding to the feedback, you change the subject– either in your mind or in reality. You say (or in this case, more likely think:) “How can she expect me to get things in on time when I never have access to the tools I need. There’s always missing information, and I’m never sure she really means it when she gives me deadlines.”

If you continue down this path–you will not hear what is valid in the feedback–and they won’t hear what’s valid in your thinking. You’ll talk (or think) right past each other. No one has any opportunity to learn anything. You have successfully switched tracks.

Just like in spot the label, noticing when you’ve switchtracked (or when someone has switchtracked in response to you) is step one. Typically, you’ll want to deal first with the feedback and then find a way to address the second topic. Switchtracking can also be a clue that there is a relationship issue sitting beneath the feedback that is worthy of being attended to–and might be even more important than what the feedback seems to be about.

Receiving Feedback as an Act of Leadership

Now, it’s your turn. Start noticing how you respond when you are receiving feedback. Can you listen better to learn more? Are you wrongspotting? switchtracking? can you spot the label? (And yes, do try this at home.)

Our ability to learn from feedback is crucial. As a leader–as you begin to role model asking for feedback and receiving feedback, you will begin to shape an organization of people who know how to learn and grow together. You will support a culture where it is safe to speak up and say what is important. That’s why this book about feedback is also a book about how to create vibrant organizations. And why this work is so rich and so important for leaders at all levels.




Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” which I come back to time and time again, is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. It’s pretty simple–advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. While we talk a lot about inquiry in leadership and the important of listening and asking (perhaps because it is almost always the harder one to put into practice) advocacy is also important–having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express your ideas.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift–and we can begin by becoming aware–by noticing when we’re holding tight, when we are not asking questions–or allowing questions to be asked. Notice when advocacy has run rampant, when opinions are too firmly held. We can listen to ourselves when we say “we know” something is true and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards.