Friday 15 January 2021

On the value of not understanding…

Oh Lord, Please don’t let me be misunderstood…  sang Nina Simone, and it’s a sentiment we all share, I think. (And what a great performance it is!)

It was brought home to me particularly forcefully this week, in a thinking session with a colleague.  She thought, throughout, in Hindi, a language I do not understand.

It was, amongst other things, an experiment. She wanted to see what difference it made to her thinking, if she were to think in the language of her childhood and home upbringing, though not her schooling and education (which were in English). 

It proved a very rich experiment.  She reported that she thought more freely in my presence, knowing that I could not understand; and there were several reasons for that. One was that there was no need to supply context, or to be careful that her sentences were clear.  Another was that there was no risk of my misunderstanding her (or, of course, judging her).  She also reported that the session was very valuable: that she had done good thinking.

It was also fascinating from my point of view.  I had been concerned about whether I would be able to give that full, generative attention that is at the heart of a Thinking Environment (see other posts tagged with that label for more context) for thirty minutes, when listening to a language I did not understand. But fascinatingly, I was able to follow her thinking journey remarkably well. I could tell - from her tone of voice, pace, intonation and facial expressions when she was struggling for ideas, when she was making new links, when she was surprising herself, when she was pleased or amused at her thoughts and so on. And periodically she would pause to write down (in English, she confided to me) particularly important insights. 

But that’s bonkers!, you may be thinking, as my estimable wife did when I described the experience. What were you doing if you couldn’t understand a word?

An understandable reaction, but, I think a misplaced one. I was striving to do what I always do on these occasions: hold the space, provide exquisite attention, and embody the other components of a Thinking Environment.  Also, I asked questions to help her to continue to think, when she reached the end of a wave of thinking. So occasionally she would come to a stop; and I’d wait to see if a new wave of thinking was coming; and sometimes it did, but at other times she asked me, in English, to ask her another question.

How did I know what to ask her?  The first couple of times, I simply asked ‘What more do you think or feel or want to say?’ a fabulous question crafted by Nancy Kline. And the third time I asked if that question was still the most helpful one, and she suggested a different question, so I asked that: and that was all it took.

When it was my turn to think, I was tempted to think in French, to try to replicate the experiment.  I did not, in fact do so, not least as I am not confident that I have enough French to keep it going for 30 minutes. But I think I will try that at some stage, possibly for a shorter thinking session. I’ll be interested to see both whether I find it more liberating when my thinking partner can’t understand; but also how working with a much more limited vocabulary affects my thinking: does it clarify or over-simplify it?  And are there other differences: will my background framework of cultural references be less Shakespeare and Stoppard, and more Racine and Anouilh?

If I conduct that experiment (and if I remember to do so) I shall report back here in due course.

And in the meantime, here's a treat...


With thanks to Kerensa Pickett for sharing her photo on Unsplash

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