Friday 17 May 2024

A Sounding Board?

One of the things that people (particularly people in senior roles) often say, when reflecting on their experience of coaching, is that they have valued me as a sounding board.

I find that interesting, as I don't often pass judgement on what they are thinking. When they ask what I think, my first reaction is normally to treat that as a courtesy: they think they've been going on too long, and it's my turn to speak.  So I reassure them that I am still interested in what they think and encourage them to continue thinking. They nearly always do (and it is nearly always fruitful).

However, occasionally someone persists and asks for my view. Even then I don't act as a sounding board, according to the dictionary definition: a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public. I am more likely to share some further way of thinking about the issue at hand: some theoretical model, or questions it raises in my mind, or some such. 

And reflecting on this, it made me wonder what a sounding board actually is.  Insofar as I had given it any thought, I was conflating it with the soundboard of a piano: which amplifies the resonance of the strings.

Which is not far wrong, but a sounding board (as opposed to a sound board) is apparently 'a structure placed above and sometimes also behind a pulpit or other speaking platform that helps to project the sound of the speaker. It is usually made of wood.'

Passing swiftly over the fact that this excuses me from seeming somewhat wooden at times (though I hope that I am never sounding bored...), this gave me pause for thought. I am not sure that the metaphor quite works; and I am sure that the other meaning, concerning testing the validity of ideas, is the one the people have in mind when they use the term.

But there is something there, I think, and perhaps it is to do with the notions of projection and resonance. I have blogged before about why it is particularly helpful to think out loud in someone else's presence, rather than merely on one's own (valuable though that is). 

And pondering the sounding board metaphor makes me want to add to that: there is something about thinking out loud that helps us to project our thinking into the world in a way that enables us to check how well it resonates with us. That is, when we hear ourselves say it out loud, it sounds different and clearer, and that allows us to evaluate how well it is attuned to what we really think, believe, and value.  

So perhaps it is not I who am the sounding board, but rather the thinker.  I am merely the reason (I nearly wrote excuse) for their saying out loud what otherwise might go round and round in their head.

I would be interested to know if this resonates with you...


Piano Diagram from Blackham, 1965 (apparently) via  Antoine Chaigne on ResearchGate; Sounding Board photo from The Accidental Atheist blog though where he got it from, I don't know...

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