Friday 12 October 2018

Promising Conversations

At a meeting of coaches and facilitators interested in Nancy Kline’s Time to Think approach, we discussed the difference it makes when people promise not to interrupt each other (or, in coaching, when the coach promises not to interrupt the person being coached). I normally talk about the fact that I won’t interrupt, when we discuss the coaching process at an initial meeting with each coaching client; but I haven’t previously expressed it as a promise; and following yesterday’s conversations, I will now do so.  I suspect it will make a difference…

We then thought in pairs about ‘our interruptive lives’ and then discussed the Risk Analysis of interruptions.

Any excuse for a picture of Magdalen...

In a very rich day (which also involved meeting an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since leaving Magdalen in 1982…) this was one of the waves of thinking that has particularly resonated with me.

What is it about interruptions that is so destructive? And what can we do about that?

The essence, of course, is that when we interrupt somebody, what we are saying is that our thinking is more important than theirs.

The risk analysis sheds further light on that.  The positive reasons to interrupt, stated at their strongest, might be these:

  • I have a great idea on this topic, and if I don’t say it now, it may be lost forever.
  • Further, if I do say it now, it may save a great deal of time, as you clearly don’t have such good ideas.
  • Also, my good idea may stimulate further good ideas in you; there is a buzz in sparking ideas off each other at speed that generates more good ideas.

But the risks should not be overlooked. The biggest risk is that you may have been on the verge of having a great idea, and that may now be lost for ever… and we will never know. Further, if we are in a position of any kind of authority, every interruption is an assertion of power, an example of how authority may be wielded to dominate the conversation, and risks infantilising those subject to it and reducing their willingness (or even capacity) to express great ideas in the future.  If we are not in a position of authority, interruptions are potentially read as power plays or insubordination: all of which reduce the likelihood of good idea generation in the future.

But the talks about our interruptive lives revealed a lot more; how our lives can be structured around interruptions; how we can teach ourselves (and others) that interruptions are the normal modus operandi, or even modus vivendi. It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway, for the record) that electronic communications play a significant role in that.

But going deeper still, it is salutary to think about the ways in which we interrupt ourselves: how we can interrupt our attending to someone else by paying attention to our reaction to what he or she is saying; how we interrupt our own thinking by… well in my case, by almost anything…
So what can we do?  I think that starting with oneself is often the most productive strategy. And the evidence seems clear, from personal experience, from the wisdom of ancient traditions, and now from a growing body of research: the regular practice of meditation helps us to attend; to keep our attention on the chosen focus of attention.
Further,  if we promise not to interrupt, that changes everything.  Indeed, in the spirit of the day, I took no notes while anyone was talking, so as to be able fully to attend. But at the end of this session, before going for a much-needed coffee, I wrote these two words on a piece of paper: Promising Conversations. I think there is more to explore here, in theory and practice…

And one of the most interesting aspects of this, which we aim to explore at future meetings, is how the promise not to interrupt might affect conversations between people who have polarised opinions. Polarisation seems a particular problem at present (think Brexit, GOP/Democrats, abortion…). It is often characterised by interruption, a refusal to listen, still less to understand the other’s beliefs or opinions, and the misrepresentation of those beliefs and opinions in subsequent discourse.  We want to experiment with that, and see to what extent the promise not to interrupt changes that.  We are not expecting convergence or agreement; but at least the reduction of the de-humanising of the ‘other’ and better mutual understanding. And those seem to me like worthy goals. 

I will report back in due course.

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