Sunday 20 January 2019

Seeking to Understand (4)

On further reflection (this post will probably only make sense if you've already read my previous ones on the topic, here and here), something else struck me: I can remember very little of what my interlocutor actually said.  And I can remember very little of what I said, either.

That reflection raises some interesting questions.

In the normal Thinking Environment process, the purpose of listening is to help the other to do his or her very best thinking, in the hope that he or she will have some new thoughts.  Those new thoughts are the property of the thinker, of course, and it is the thinker who (most) needs to remember them.

By that token, I should remember what I said, and particularly any new thoughts that I had. But the truth is that I didn't have any new thoughts in this conversation. I suspect that is because the conversation was relatively brief (20 or 30 minutes, which means about 10 or 15 minutes of me thinking and about the same for the other person. Given that this is a topic I have already given a lot of thought to, and the invitation was to share my thinking, that is not, perhaps, surprising. I also think, intuitively, that had the dialogue gone on for longer, I probably would have had some new thoughts.

On the other hand, given that I was meant to be listening with a view to understanding, perhaps I should have remembered what the other person said, too. What I think happened here is a variety of factors. One is that I do remember one thing the other person said, because I had never heard it before, and it really prompted some fresh thinking in me, whereas much of what she said was familiar to me. Also, had I made notes straight after the conversation, I suspect I could have recalled most of it. 

And again, had the conversation gone on for longer, I am sure that my opposite number would have had more new thoughts, and that these too would have landed with me and been retained.

Another issue, of course, is whether the purpose of this type of interaction is different from, or additive too, the normal purpose of helping someone to do their very best thinking. The other purpose we named was better mutual understanding; and at a deep level, I think that occurred. That is to say, I understood the values and fundamental humanity of my interlocutor's position better than I had done, and I think that was reciprocated.  Clearly, if we had had the intention of taking this further, we would have needed to make (and possibly agree) notes at the end of the conversation.  But our more profound purpose was to learn about the impact of this process on such (normally polarising) conversations.

So instead, immediately afterwards, we (rightly) focussed on discussing the process and the learning about the process, not the content of the conversation: and that is what is fresh in my memory, and continues to stimulate further thought (as this series of blog posts attests).

So my next step, in terms of learning, is to see if I can organise a similar conversation, but this time with a much longer time available, and see where that takes us. Should I manage to organise that, I will report back in due course.

Saturday 19 January 2019

Seeking to Understand (3)

Further to yesterday's post, I have had some more reflections on the process on Thursday. 

One is that, although I mentioned it, I think I underplayed the value of turn-taking in this context. One of the components of the Thinking Environment is equality, of course; and sharing time fairly is a good way of enabling that. And whilst Nancy was facilitating the conversation, in her usual style, to ensure she was not infantilising us in any way, she gave us the responsibility to manage the turn-taking, with her role being to intervene only if someone got so carried away that he or she forgot to do so.

In the event, Nancy did not need to intervene at all (except a couple of times to ask us to speak more loudly so that those at the back of the room could hear). And the impact of that, of having the responsibility only to talk for a couple of minutes and then shut up and give one's complete attention to the other person in the conversation, was a powerful part of what made it such a rich and warm discussion. Demonstrating that constant awareness of, and consideration for, the other person, even when in full flow, was very important.

I also mentioned in my previous post, that the conditions of the discussion made it easy to bring my best self to the conversation.  And ease, of course, is an other component of the Thinking Environment. Coincidence? I think not.

But as the conversation did not result in either of us changing our deeply-held views, a pragmatic question is: what's the point?

I think there are several points.  One is that we both (and those listening to the conversation) learned something.  I hold that to be a good in its own right. Further, we established a relationship in which we were able to keep talking, constructively, about something about which we disagreed profoundly. So if we were in a situation where we needed to reach some kind of accord, or some kind of agreed next steps, we would be in a better position to do so.  There are several reasons for that.

First, each of us would be very much clearer about what would be required to make the other change his or her mind (or the impossibility of that); or what would need to be embedded in a proposal to make it acceptable; secondly, we established much that we did agree on, and those aspects could be the foundation of some progress beyond mere talking. Thirdly, we had established a relationship that would make honest discussion of any ideas or proposals possible, in a constructive spirit.

I can see real potential for using this approach in deeply-conflicted work situations. Even if no final agreement was reached, an open agreement to disagree, accompanied by good will, honesty, and increased trust, is very much preferable to many of the other probable outcomes of such a situation.

And here's a thought: how about a television programme - it could be called More Light Than Heat - where such polarised topics could be discussed in such a way, rather than the conflictual approach beloved of broadcasters? Nancy would make a fine host and chair...


Since writing this, I have had yet further thoughts, which may be read here.

Friday 18 January 2019

Seeking to Understand (2)

I blogged last week about the experiment we were proposing to run. The question we were exploring was the impact, on conflict-fraught conversations, of a commitment to listen, to seek to understand, and in particular to refrain from interrupting.

Yesterday, we ran the experiment, and here I want to record and reflect on my experience and my learning.  I will not name any of the others involved, as (although it wasn't invoked) I think the Chatham House rule is appropriate here, apart from saying that this meeting was of coaches and facilitators trained in, and committed to, Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach, and the process was expertly facilitated by Nancy.

At the start of the day, by way of a check-in, we were asked to consider What question would you have to answer in order to be relaxed when in conversation with someone whose view on an issue that matters to you is acutely different from yours? My question, in answer to that question was, How can I ensure that I bring my very best self to this conversation?  I had not thought long or hard about this, but I think it is significant, as will become clear later in this post.

We also had a five minute Thinking Partnership session with a colleague, and I used that to think about my anxiety about the forthcoming discussions. For at this point I should reveal that I was no passive observer of this experiment, but one of the protagonists (I nearly said, guinea pigs....)  I had volunteered to discuss the topic of abortion, taking the pro-life point of view (a topic about which I have also blogged previously, here and here). And although I did not feel very anxious I did have some concerns. 

The major one was that this is a topic that is clearly very sensitive, and it was statistically highly probable that in a group containing some 50 women, a number of them would have first-hand experience: I did not want to hurt or distress anyone. On the other hand, the agenda had been clear, and so I had to assume that people had chosen to attend knowing the topic; and I am sure that Nancy would have reminded me not to infantilise anyone.  I was also anxious, of course, that I might be disliked by the majority of those present for holding the views that I do - particularly as a man. 

I was also aware that I had not planned what I might say. That was quite deliberate, as the idea was to think out loud in each other's presence, not present a case.  But of course there are risks inherent in that. And then there was a very specific concern: the woman with whom I was in a Thinking Partnership that morning was someone whom I had known at College, lost touch with, and only met again, with much delight (35 years on) at the previous meeting of this group: it would be a shame if she found my views abhorrent and we were unable to be friends.  On that point, she was able to reassure me, which was both kind and valuable.

When the discussion was due to start, I noticed that my heart was going a little faster than usual, but otherwise I felt fine. And Nancy set the context, the ground-rules and managed the process so well that I quickly relaxed and was able to engage in the discussion.

And that was where it got interesting. The process was that each of us would talk for a couple of minutes, and then pause and listen to the other, seeking to give the highest quality of attention, and motivated by a curiosity about the other's point of view, and a real desire to understand it. And of course, we were both quite clear about the absolute prohibition on interrupting.

As a conversation, it worked remarkably well. The ground rules and the process meant that each of us was able really to think out loud, honestly and at ease; we each gave calm and reasonable expression to our strongly-held views; and also we each really listened to the other.  The effects of that were many, and all of them good. 

One was that I felt that I gave the most honest and lucid account of my views on the topic that I have ever done. Sometimes, talking about such a polarising issue, knowing that I hold a view that will be strongly opposed by others, I can adopt a tone and style that I don't like.  I think that was the significance of my opening question at the start of the day: How can I ensure that I bring my very best self to this conversation? This process made it easy to do so.  The respect and interest of my interlocutor ensured that.  And I think (and hope) that was reciprocal.

It also removed the risk of demonisation of the other from the discussion; something that is normally all too prevalent in such polarising conversations. For example, there were a couple of things that the other person said that I could have rebutted triumphantly, had I been intent on the point-scoring that often characterises such discussions.  And I imagine that the other person noticed some such opportunities presented by what I said. But because the focus was on understanding, rather than winning, such an approach simply didn't seem helpful.

And what that meant was that we were both able to hear and recognise the humanity that underpinned the other's point of view; and that we actually learned from each other and understood each other better at the end of the conversation.  The net result of which was that we both found that we felt more warmly towards the other at the end of the conversation than we had at the start; even though we continued to disagree about something important to both of us. That is, I think, a rare and valuable outcome.

The other benefit of this approach was that those listening to the conversation heard a much richer, more reflective and more thought-provoking discussion than they would otherwise have done.  A significant number thanked me afterwards, saying that this topic was never discussed; or that they had never heard the kinds of points I had made and it had really stimulated them to think further, and so on; and of course I saw many people approach my opposite number, and (I assume) make similar points.

And then, over the lunch break, I noticed that I suddenly felt emotionally wobbly; and later in the afternoon, mildly elated. So I realised that the experience had been more of an emotional rollercoaster than I had previously thought.  I am still wondering about the reasons for that.  I toyed with the idea that it was to do with relief that the imagined hatred of all the women in the room had not materialised; but I don't think it was that.  So my current theory (very tentatively) is this: normally I have maintained a strict boundary around my professional work, so that I do not express views on topics as polarising as this.  On the one hand because they are not relevant to my work; and on the other hand because they could be a distraction from that work.  But on this occasion I had deliberately blown a large hole in that boundary - a boundary that was only as clearly apparent to me after I had breached it.  But as I say, that is a very tentative hypothesis.

So all in all, a very rich experience, and one which I am sure I will continue to learn from as I reflect on it - not least as I ask myself: how I might use this learning in my professional work?


Since writing this, I have had some further thoughts, which may be read here.

Second update

And some more, here.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Seeking to understand

I blogged a while ago (here in fact) about a meeting of coaches and facilitators convened by Nancy Kline who are interested (and qualified) in her Time to Think approach.  The next meeting is coming up next week, and I am looking forward to it with great interest.

One of the issues we have agreed to explore is whether and how a real commitment to listening and seeking to understand might transform conflict-fraught conversations.

We all know that there are some subjects on which people hold such strong views that a conversation with someone who holds the opposite view is highly likely to degenerate into a point-scoring pseudo-attempt to convince the other of one's own rightness. I say pseudo-attempt, because the likelihood of such an outcome is extremely low, and is therefore, I suspect, not the real goal of such conversations.

So we are going to have a couple of difficult conversations, between people holding opposing views on some fraught topics; with Nancy structuring and facilitating, and with the agreement that each participant is seeking not to convince, but to understand, the other.

The topics are Brexit and abortion; so you can see what I mean by fraught topics.

We will then, of course, discuss what we have learned from the experiment, and whether there is any value in such an approach; and (I expect) how we might use the emergent learning in our professional practice.  That last point is the one I am most curious about; I am sure that there will be positive learning from the experience, but it is not yet clear to me how that may be relevant to my practice.

I'll also be particularly interested in how the emotional dynamic of these conversations goes. Typically, when people feel passionately strongly about something, and discuss it with someone who takes the opposing view and doesn't budge (and we are not expecting movement, though of course that is also a theoretical possibility) emotions run high.  My guess is that if one feels truly listened to and understood, even if the other person continues to oppose, the emotional temperature may remain a lot cooler.

The other thing that intrigues me is that I imagine (though i may be wrong here) that there will be a significant majority of the group on one side of the argument in each case; and i am wondering how that will affect subsequent discussion and indeed subsequent relationships within the group.

All in all, it will be very interesting; and I will report back in due course.