Learn How to Listen in a Radically Different Way

Apply this listening skill to foster a better environment for ideas.

Attentive listening

Most people think they listen well, but they rarely do - not at this level. Listening this way is a radical act.

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Over the Past 15 years, Nancy Kline has identified 10 behaviors that form a system called a Thinking EnvironmentTM, a model of human interaction that dramatically improves the way people think, and thus the way they work and live. In Time to Think (Cassell Illustrated, 1999), she addresses listening – the quality of people’s attention for each other – as the core of this method. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Attention.”

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Listening of this caliber ignites the human mind. The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.

I have listened to lots of people over the years – most of them professionally and some just because we were together. I don’t know of one person among those many who, under the right conditions, didn’t have interesting and important things to say.

Colleagues sometimes ask me whether I ever get bored listening to people. Yes: under one circumstance. If people are not saying what they really think, when they are chronically ducking and censoring or trying to impress or placate, I am bored. But if people are thinking for themselves about things that really matter to them, I am fascinated. You can tell when a person has just moved from let-me-please-you thinking back to their own mind – they go from soporific to scintillating just like that. I enjoy those moments hugely. 

Beneath the fear of being punished for thinking for themselves, most people have ideas that matter, ideas that would make a difference if they could be developed fully. People, regardless of their position or status, can think of things that move discussions to whole new levels of sparkle and resolution. Individuals you would never suspect of being interesting have absorbing stories to tell and disturbing insights that would humble even the most long-winded of us right out of our self-importance and rush. If the conditions are right, the huge intelligence of the human being surfaces. Ideas seem to come from nowhere and sometimes stun us. 

The best conditions for thinking, I assumed for years, were hypercritical, competitive and urgent. Schools, organizations, governments and families convince us of that. But in fact it is in schools, organizations, governments and families that people do some of their worst thinking. That is because the conditions for thinking there are usually appalling. 

The best conditions for thinking, if you really stop and notice, are not tense. They are gentle. They are quiet. They are unrushed. They are stimulating but not competitive. They are encouraging. They are paradoxically both rigorous and nimble. 

Attention, the act of listening with palatable respect and fascination, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Listening of this caliber is enzymatic. When you are listening to someone, much of the quality of what you are hearing is your effect on them. Giving good attention to people makes them more intelligent. Poor attention makes them stumble over their words and seem stupid. Your attention, your listening is that important. 

We think we listen, but we don’t. We finish each other’s sentences, we interrupt each other, we moan together, we fill in the pauses with our own stories, we look at our watches, we sigh, frown, tap our finger, read the newspaper, or walk away. We give advice, give advice, give advice. Even professional listeners listen poorly much of the time. They come in too soon with their own ideas. They equate talking with looking professional. Corporate leaders can be the worst. I even knew one chief executive who worked a puzzle when someone came in to see him. It was not uncommon for him to interrupt the person with a loud ‘There!’ when he found the missing piece. But he had lost the thinking potential of his employee, and their respect. 

Listening to each other, if you want to think for yourselves, requires discipline and the most profound attention for each other. 

Let’s say it is mid-morning. You are busy as usual. The phone rings and the caller says, ‘Hi, do you have a minute? I’ve got a problem. I could use your help.’ 

You say, ‘Sure.’ You gear up to be helpful. You get ready to solve the person’s problem for them. It would seem logical that if they had any ideas of their own about this problem, they wouldn’t have called you. 

They arrive. They sit down. You ask them what’s up. They begin to speak. And before they have even remotely finished describing the problem, somewhere between their twentieth and fiftieth second of speaking, you figure out what they should do. And you tell them. 

They needed ideas. They rang you. You gave them yours. Good? Probably not. Certainly not so fast. 

Go back. Notice that, just after you hung up the phone, an assumption raised itself from the land of creaking social indoctrination and told you what to do. It said, ‘Helping people always means giving them your ideas.’ You assumed that the caller’s brain, the one that contained their problem, did not also contain the solution. You assumed, because you had been taught this almost since you could breathe, that helping people means thinking for them. The thing you would do, therefore, would be to listen only as long as it took your brain to think of an idea for them. Then you would say it, expect them to see the genius of it and be grateful. 

And over the weeks that followed, you would notice that they were still struggling with the same problem, still trying to solve it. You would privately think of them as stupid or at least stubborn. You would shake your head and walk on. Something had not worked. They had not done what you said. Or perhaps they had and were still not satisfied. This was not necessarily because your ideas were bad; they may well have been perfectly good. 

But your ideas were not their ideas. And so they were not quite as good – not quite as accurate, as rich, as just right as theirs would have been – because it was their problem, not yours. Also, because your ideas were not theirs, they were less likely to act on them than they would have been if the ideas had been their own. 

It was because the teaching, handed down to you with all good will, that the best help we can be to people is to tell them what to think, is not true. It is popular. It is immediate. But it is wrong. 

Real help is different. Real help, professionally or personally, consists of listening to people, of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first. Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution – often the best one. When you keep that in mind, you become more effective with people. And people around you end up with better ideas. 

This is not to say that advice is never a good thing or that your ideas are never needed. Sometimes your suggestions are exactly what the person wants and needs. Many times a robust exchange of ideas is perfect for the task. 

But don’t rush into it. Give people a chance to find their own ideas first. That chance will take more time than you probably feel comfortable with. Wait it out longer than you want to. You can always resort to telling them what to do later. You, like the rest of us, are probably expert at that. 

To help people think for themselves, first listen. And listen. Then – listen. And just when they say they can’t think of anything else, you can ask them the question, ‘What else do you think about this? What else comes to mind that you want to say?’ Even when people are sure there is nothing left in their weary brain, there nearly always is. Surprisingly the simple question, ‘What else do you think about this?’ can usually lead them straight to more, often good, ideas. In the presence of the question, the mind thinks again. 

The next time someone asks for your help with a problem, remember that the brain that contains the problem probably also contains the solution. Then set up the conditions for them to find it.


Reprinted with permission from Time to Thinkwritten by Nancy Kline and published by Cassell Illustrated, 1999.