Listening – A True Art

A colleague reminded me the other day, we spend more time listening to reply than we do to understand. I agreed eagerly.

And then thought again.  Whether I listen to reply or listen to understand, my attention is on me and not the person that I am, in theory, listening to.  Shouldn’t the speaker, from now own referred to as the thinker, be the focus of my attention?

When I listen with a Thinking Environment[1] (TE) mindset, my focus is very much on the thinker.  Interruption is a no-no, so I can relax into my task – listening.  I am interested in what they are saying, but my curiosity is motivated by a desire to know what they are going to say next rather than my need to understand.  And as I have no need to reply I can offer the thinker such a deep level of attention that they can’t help but take their thinking to a new, deeper level and discover new insights and ideas relevant to their question or challenge.

We are all so used to giving, and being given, the answer that it’s our default position – to share our own opinion as the listener and to expect it as the thinker.  Yet, we are fully able to explore our own questions and discover our own answers; all we need is the opportunity to think, develop and expand our own thoughts.

And it is so rewarding as a listener, to support a thinker as they travel down the sometimes rarely trodden paths of their own wisdom and creativity.  I’ll not pretend that purposefully not saying a word is easy, but it does become more natural with practise.

So, some tips that will help you to listen with an attention that ignites the thinking of the other:

  1. When someone asks you a question, before rushing in to give the answer, pause and say something along the lines of “Before I answer, I’d really like to know what do you think”
  2. When you start listening, sit back and relax. Place your full attention on the thinker.
  3. When you start to hear the internal chitter-chatter of your mind narrating your own thoughts on what the thinker is saying, gently stop yourself by returning your attention to the thinker and ask yourself the question – “I wonder what you are going to say next?”
  4. When the thinker pauses, hold the silence for them and continue to show your interest in what they will say next – very often, this will be enough to start them exploring again. Hold back from sharing your thoughts.
  5. If they do not start thinking again, gently ask “What more do you think?” And settle back into listening mode again.
  6. And just enjoy the quality and originality of the thinking that emerges. Chances are, your own views will no longer be needed!

It sounds so simple…. yet working the TE way can be challenging and uncomfortable, at least at first – but it does become more natural with practise.  And the impact can be amazing.  I use the principles of the TE in all my workshops – and now have to dedicate time so that participants can discuss how it feels to listen and think in this way.

If you’d like to know more, I run regular Art of Listening Workshops – more details are available on the Workshop page of my website.  Alternatively, contact me as I’m always very happy to listen!


[1] The Thinking Environment is the brain child and life work of Nancy Kline.  She has written two books on this way working with others and I’d highly recommend them.  I am a certified Thinking Environment Coach and Facilitator.