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!