Friday 25 June 2021

How does that help?

 How does that help? I was asked.  And it's a good question.  The that under discussion was being supported to think out loud - all that Nancy Kline stuff I keep going on about. And the challenge implicit in the question (which I elicited by listening...) was that if you simply say out loud what you are already thinking, that doesn't take your thinking any further forward.

David Rock, in his book The Brain at Work, which I have already blogged about, highlights our intuition that saying difficult stuff out loud is more likely to be unhelpful: solidifying the difficult stuff as something real (our intuition often tells us the same about writing it down, come to that - and we'll return to journalling in another post, another time). Yet, he says, the research suggests that the reverse is true; or at least, that it can be very helpful.

And that is my experience, too, both with regards to sharing my own difficult stuff, and hearing other peoples'. Why might that be?

I think that there are several reasons. Jordan Peterson, in 12 Rules for Life, talks about how helpful it is for the brain to be required to order and select, from the myriad bits of detail and noise surrounding an experience, those which we regard as important; and telling our story out loud makes us do that. That has a clarifying effect: rather than all the undifferentiated noise, we now have a narrative that we can examine.

And I am reminded, too, of Dumbledore's pensieve: a device into which he could place his thoughts and memories, to be examined, but also (presumably) to free up cognitive processing capacity in his brain. 

In my experience, there are a few other things that go on.  When one is listened to really well, one takes one's thinking further: it is not uncommon both for me and for those I am coaching, to surprise ourselves with what we say; and then to pause and wonder Do I really think that? Sometimes we expose our own inner hyperbole, our love of drama, our need to be the hero - or the victim. And once it is said out loud, that is easier to recognise and address.

Also, thinking out loud is often a good way to address rumination - that rather less helpful process of going over and over worries without progress or resolution. Somehow, the presence of a listener makes rumination seem too self-indulgent, and we tend to move forwards, rather than just round and round, in our thinking. 

There are also benefits in the very process of assigning words to our thoughts. Worries can be vague and all-encompassing; but naming them both makes them more specific, and therefore more limited.  Moreover, the very act of naming something gives us a feeling of power over it.  Children learning to deal with disruptive emotions are often told Name it to tame it! and that is very good advice. That, of course, relates to the naming of stories that is part of my Shifting Stories methodology.

I realise that I have written here particularly about the value of thinking about difficult stuff in this way; but I think this also applies to thinking about positive stuff.  Indeed, I would argue that there is a particular value in doing so. We often pass over the positive too quickly, for many reasons. One is that thinking about it with someone else may feel boastful or arrogant; another is that it doesn't need our attention in the same way - there is no problem to solve; and so on.  However, there are real benefits to reflecting on what has gone well, both for our mental well-being, and for our learning. 

So I will end with that challenge to you: find someone who is prepared to listen to you with exquisite attention, and then spend a few minutes (10?... 20?...  30, even?...) really unpacking some success that you have had to see what learning, and affirmation, there is for you in it.  And then, of course, do the same for the person who has been listening to you: and you will realise that neither role is a waste of time, nor dull, nor any of those other excuses our mind presents to us when we consider such an activity.

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