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.




Facts, Opinions and The Language of Leaders

Fact vs. opinion. Seems clear, doesn’t it? Turns out, not at all. And, there’s much to learn from this seemingly obvious distinction. Let’s start by shifting our language slightly and speak about assertions (which include facts) and assessments (which include opinions.) When we make statements (vs. promises and requests) they are, for the most part, one or the other–either an assessment or an assertion.

Here’s a simple example of the distinction: “I am short” vs. “I am 4″11.” In most contexts and with most groups of adults, there’s quite a bit of truth to the statement that ” I am short” it is, nonetheless, an assessment. It cannot be proven absolutely true or absolutely false. When I spent time with my mother’s extended family, full of women who, for the most part, didn’t make it to 4″9, I was no longer short. Yet, I was still 4″11. This is an assertion. It can be proven true or false.

At this point you might be thinking, “I learned this around the 3rd grade. Isn’t this just a grammar lesson?” Well, no. In our daily lives–and as leaders–we tend to be pretty sloppy about this distinction–with significant consequences. By being more mindful of the distinction, we can improve the quality of our communication and avoid many of the communications breakdowns that we experience.

There is nothing wrong with assessments. We do and must make them all the time. We are wired to make assessments. The problem arises when we:

  • Aren’t aware that they are assessments and
  • They are not “grounded”–not based in evidence, or not relevant to the context in which they are being made.

Let’s start with the problem of not realizing our assessment is just an assessment.  In the words of Flores: “Believing your information is truth can blind you to different interpretations and possibilities.” On the other hand, knowing that what we’re saying is an assessment and being conscious of that means that there remains a possibility that we might be wrong or that there’s another way of seeing or interpreting the same thing. And, here’s something to consider: any time we make a statement about the future it is, by definition, an assessment. There are no “facts” about the future. So, when we think we’re stating a fact about the future, (e.g., “There is no way I’ll ever be able to do that.”) we are creating a reality that has not yet happened and closing the door on the possibility of seeing something differently.

Next, let’s talk about grounding assessments. A grounded assessment is a statement that, while not true or false, is supported by a set of assertions that are relevant and limited to the situation at hand. Recently someone asked me what I thought about a candidate for a position he was hiring for. Because I was thinking a lot about assessments and assertions and about grounded assessments, I didn’t say what I first thought, which was: “He’s really nice but doesn’t get things done.” Instead, I said: “In the last position I worked with him in, a job that had a lot of competing demands, he seemed to have a hard time prioritizing those demands. And, what I noticed was that people really enjoyed working with him and he would try to help and support the team when he could.” Rather than rule him out, my colleague realized that the job he was hiring for was quite a bit more straightforward and my grounded, specific assessment was quite useful to him and meant he might be a good job candidate.

I felt pretty good. I hadn’t smeared someone’s character. I’d given good information and I’d been entirely forthcoming and as honest as I could be. And, I was clear that this was my assessment, not facts. Since this particular colleague valued my opinion highly, I was particularly aware that I could, with my words, make or break someone’s chances–and this distinction was invaluable.

I’ve just skimmed the surface here–and I hope you can already see just how important a topic this is. Grounding assessments, consciously, is an act of leadership. As you model it and practice it, others will begin to adopt it as well. And, you can explain what you’re doing–and why. You’ll watch the culture shift as grounded assessments become the norm.

So, take time in the next few days and observe your speech patterns. See what you find and how you can shift.

Note: Fernando Flores, author of Conversations for Actions, is my primary source for much of the work I’m doing on language–it’s also referenced in my previous blog about leadership language. I draw on his work in coaching, writing and speaking. While not an easy book to read, I recommend it highly. Another couple of web-based resources on the topic can be found here and here.