Thursday 31 March 2022

Is Understanding Over-Rated?

Regular readers of my musings will know that I am a big fan of Nancy Kline and her work (see my numerous posts on my blog with her name as a tag...).

More recently, I have also become a fan of Kathryn Mannix (only three posts mentioning her, prior to this one, but as I say, I am a recent fan).  Her latest book is Listen: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations. For those interested, I have reviewed this briefly on the Coaching Supervision Partnership blog, here. It is an excellent read.

There is, of course, a lot of congruence between what they both write about listening, which is hardly surprising. But I was also struck by some stark differences, or even contradictions.  In Nancy Kline's world, it is not important that the listener should understand the thinker. In her books, she gives examples of times when she has not understood, and  that has not, finally mattered.  Whereas interrupting to clarify or check understanding would, in her view, have interrupted the thinker's waves of thinking, and would therefore have been unhelpful. 

I have blogged previously about listening to somebody thinking in a language that I do not speak, and how valuable the person I was listening to found that experience.

However, Kathryn Mannix sees understanding, and communicating understanding, as incredibly important. The fourth chapter of her book is called Listening to Understand.  She writes: These occasional interruptions to check understanding don't usually put the speaker off. In fact, they help the speaker to feel properly listened to. This feels almost like heresy to someone steeped in Kline's approach (though very conventional in terms of most teaching about active listening). For Kline, interruption is the big problem: that is why her latest book is called: The Promise that Changes Everything: I Won't Interrupt You.

So what do I make of this? I have already said that I am a fan of both: I find both of them inspiring and wise guides, who have taught me much. Is one right and the other wrong? And if so, which is which?

But in fact, I think both may be right; and that the difference springs from the contexts in which they are thinking of listening, and the purpose of such listening.  

Nancy Kline is very clear that the singular purpose of her Thinking Environment approach is to help the other person to do their very best independent thinking: to think as herself and for herself. In that context, my understanding may not be necessary (or even helpful, as I noted in my post linked to above, about someone thinking with me in Hindi). For here we are concerned with the thinker's individual cognitive journey, and we do not wish to interrupt that.

Whereas Kathryn Mannix is concerned about listening when a tender conversation is needed: when there is a hurt to be tended. This is primarily the realm of emotion; and in that realm, in order for someone to process their emotions and for the listener to be able to respond with appropriate tenderness, it may well be important for them to feel truly understood by the listener. 

That is not to say that Kline's model doesn't allow for emotional exploration (it does) nor that Mannix's doesn't expect intellectual engagement (it does); but I do think that both the context, and the purpose, of these conversations may change our sense of what is most helpful, as listeners.

All of which brings me back to a question that one of my supervisors once told me was the most important question in any one-to-one work: what are these two people doing together? If we can answer that (ideally together - which is a large part of what I call contracting and re-contracting) we should have greater clarity about what listening processes will best serve us.

Thursday 24 March 2022

From KIT to KIA

I was reviewing a coaching programme with a client the other day; a very successful leader working at a high level in a complex organisation.

And he said that one of the things that had been most beneficial was almost a blinding flash of the obvious. Along the way, I had recommended that he read David Rock's book, Your Brain at Work (I recommend it to you, too, of course). 

He, of course, learned what he needed to from it, not necessarily what I had imagined he might. The most significant thing being that the brain gets tired during the day; and that doing highly demanding brain tasks in the evening is not very productive. 

He already knew that, of course.  But he knew it as a piece of intellectual knowledge, neatly filed in some area of his memory. 

What he hadn't done is access that knowledge each day, when he decided to get through all the relatively straightforward (though urgent and often important) emails first thing before going into a day filled with meetings. That left his important work on organisational strategy and planning, and work to progress key projects, to the evening - on the basis that he could give them his full attention then, without interruption.

But having read Rock's book, he realised why he was finding the important work so difficult and so draining: his brain was already tired. 

So by way of experiment, he booked some morning time each day to work on these priorities; deferring some meetings and doing his emails later in the day.  The results were most gratifying: he found the strategic and project work both easier and more enjoyable.

And as he said, he should have realised that years ago. But for me that highlights the difference between KIT (knowledge in theory) and KIA (knowledge in action). It is very easy, not least in intellectual environments such as Universities, to assume that if we know something, we know it. But that is not the case with practical skills. I may know how to do all sorts of things, from playing golf to playing the bagpipes, but until I have practiced sufficiently to acquire the skills involved, that knowledge is purely theoretical.

So it is valuable to remember that distinction, and when you have learned something of value, create ways to use that learning in a practical way, until it is not only KIT but also KIA. 

And returning to my client's particular insight, do the important stuff early in the day; and if you are thinking that in your case that's not good advice, think again. If your brain is not more awake early in the day, is that because your lifestyle needs to change? Or, of course, you may have small children and no sleep,  in which case, give yourself a break: the important thing is to spend the time with them, and love their other parent. KIT and KIA become Kip If Tired, and Kip If Awake - whenever you get the chance...

Friday 18 March 2022

Talking to the Bereaved

One day this week, I had occasion to speak to two different people who were bereaved. One had lost a beloved son, and the other (unrelated) a beloved brother.  Like many people, I imagine, I was somewhat concerned: unsure how best to engage but sure that we should not avoid the topic.

By the grace of God (for there is no room for coincidence in my philosophy) I was just getting towards the end of Kathryn Mannix's excellent new book: Listen: how to find the words for tender conversations. And I discovered a short section, just three pages, on Advice from Bereaved People About Making Contact.

This was so helpful that I thought I would share the main points here, and encourage you to buy this excellent book (which I will review more fully once I have finished it). Mannix opens by making the point that Grief is not an illness, it is a response to loss. The grief will last as long as the loss does, and after a death the loss will last forever. (Or at least until the next life, I would add).

So here are the pointers that she has collected from the bereaved:

Please don't avoid us

You don't have to 'cheer us up.'

Say their name. You won't make us sadder by mentioning the person who died.

'How are you?' is too big to answer 

Practical help can be welcome

Remembering to check in is supportive

Instead of platitudes, just express kindness

It's awkward. We get that.

Help us to return to work and social circles

Listen to us

I found these extremely helpful; though how well I conducted the conversations is really not for me to judge.  But I am confident that simply by remembering, for example, to 'say their name' that I did better than I might otherwise have done.

If you think these are helpful, please share them widely, as I am sure that is what Kathryn Mannix would want.  And if you buy her book and value it (as you most certainly should) then share that widely too (and I am sure she would want you do to that, too!)


With thanks to Claudia Wolff for sharing her photography on Unsplash

Friday 11 March 2022

What is your Signature Presence?

I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with a number of colleagues, in which we were talking about the idea of a Signature Presence. This is that sense of who you leave behind with others, habitually, after an interaction.  I found this a really interesting notion, and more helpful that the idea of a 'personal brand' which people sometimes discuss. Maybe it's just me, but I think that the nuances of the two labels are different: personal brand sounds a bit marketing-y, and possibly inauthentic; whereas signature presence is how you show up, and is likely to be strongest when most authentic.

As we discussed this, I was interested to notice that my intuitive approach was from the inside out: who do I think I am, at my most authentic, and indeed who am I striving to become; and does that communicate well with others?  But others worked from the outside in: how do others typically perceive me, and what do I learn from that.  I am sure that both approaches are valuable - indeed necessary- but the instinctive starting point for different people intrigued me.  Am I a narcissist? Or are they over-dependent on others for validation? Or (more likely) neither of the above?  Or (I hope not) both of the above?

But it strikes me as worthy of reflection and consideration: who do you aspire to be? How do you want others to think and feel about you after interacting with you? What do you need to learn, develop, or indeed unlearn, to achieve that consistently and authentically?

And of course it reminded me of the old saying 'fake it til you make it;' which I think is a folk-wisdom way of summarising the wisdom on Aristotle on the virtues: the way to acquire a virtue (say bravery) is to behave as though you are brave at every opportunity.  If you do that consistently, you will acquire the habit of being brave - you will, in fact, become brave. 

And what do I aspire to? I hope that people experience me as committed to increasing understanding, increasing compassion, and helping people to fulfil their potential as human beings. 

You can let me know, if you like, whether that is how you read me...


With thanks to Ashley Piszek her photos on Unsplash

Friday 4 March 2022

Getting Acquainted

I blogged recently about the sad demise of my old bike, which I facetiously dubbed Scott's Learning Cycle. This week, after a little delay, I finally got the new one, and am gradually getting to know her. At first I wondered if she was heavier, or less highly geared than my old machine, as it seemed harder work to get up the hills, and my normal morning cycle took longer than it used to.  But I fear that is more me than the bike: a few weeks off cycling... 

However, we are gradually building our relationship. I took her up to a favourite view point and she was suitably appreciative, even on a cloudy morning. And, I am glad to say, she continues in her venerable predecessor's role of teaching me stuff.  This morning was about gears.

Given the profile of my morning cycle ride, gears are important. And that is obvious. But there are a few things I was reflecting on, as the larks sang at me, that seemed to have a wider application. One was the need to choose the appropriate gear for the situation. This, of course, is why Agile people are so keen on their sprints and so on. When do we need to move at pace, and when do we recognise that the context requires a long, slow pull? 

But interestingly, the correct way to use gears (as I understand it - I am, I should add, a very casual cyclist) is to keep your legs moving at about the same speed.  Some people, of course, use music to assist with this, but that is anathema to me: why should I listen to The Byrds when I could be listening to the birds, or attend to The Beatles when I could be noticing the beetles?...  But I digress. 

The concept of the gears allowing optimum and consistent application of effort, whilst adjusting for variations in the work to be done or the context of that work, strikes me as a rich analogy. I am not quite sure for what, so you will have to do the work on that one. 

But a part of it is about looking ahead, and choosing the gear that you are about to need before you need it. If you wait till you are struggling to change down, you will lose momentum, and may suffer the indignity of putting your foot on the ground. And in my case, there is a particular trap: living as I do on the side of a fell, I return home in top gear.  But if I fail to shift down before stopping, the next morning it is impossible to get started up the muddy back lane.

So plenty of learning, applicable to all sorts of situations, though I am not quite sure which.  Maybe I'll have that insight next time I'm cycling up the fell.