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.


  1. Interesting... I agree, it's not a case of one being wrong or right. We have also have to be able to be quiet enough to listen to our own gut instinct, so we know what action or non-action or non-action is appropriate in the moment.

    1. Indeed; listening to ourselves s key: and difficult. I have blogged before about how readily we interrupt ourselves...(eg here