I’ve been thinking about listening a lot recently, as I’m working with several new action learning groups. Action learning is a process whereby a small group of colleagues come together to help each other work through issues or challenges, by asking questions rather than giving advice. The process of asking questions can lead to surprising insights and new ways of seeing things, enabling the ‘issue-holder’ to find their own way forward in a situation where there is no perfect solution. Groups usually meet about half-a-dozen times, for a period of up to a year, and it’s fascinating to see the shift between questioning and listening over this time.
What I have noticed is that at the beginning of the group’s life, there is a strong drive to ask questions, sometimes at the expense of actually listening to what the issue holder is saying. It’s not unusual at this stage for group members to tend to ask leading questions based on their own experience, rather than exploring the issue-holder’s experience. Group members can also feel under pressure to fill pauses with a question – any question. As a result, the issue-holder may end up spinning between questions, unable to do their best thinking.
As facilitator, I often find myself intervening in these early stages, to help slow down the process. I have recently drawn on the work of Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, and in particular an elegant paired exercise to show the power of listening with very few words. Working with a partner, you ask them ‘what would you like to think about and what are your thoughts?’ and just listen, paying them full and engaged attention, while they speak. If they stop, you can ask ‘and what else do you think, or feel, or want to say?’ and wait again. Then reverse the roles. Each person has ten minutes. What’s striking is that when the speaker knows they are not going to be interrupted, and the questioner knows that it is fine to be silent, new thinking emerges.
Although this is a different process from action learning, it can help allay the fear that if there’s silence, nothing’s happening. It also takes the pressure off the questioner. Using this as a ‘warm-up’ exercise to action learning can be a powerful way of demonstrating this. As an action learning group gets more comfortable with silence, there’s space for the issue-holder to think, and there’s also time for questioners to reflect on what they’ve heard and what questions arise. Being comfortable with silence is an important part of the skill of listening, and it’s always amazing to see what a difference it makes when a group is able to use silence creatively.
“It is so long since most of us began to listen that we probably regard it as a natural skill, yet observations of babies, and of managers, show that it is hearing which is natural and listening is not.” (Alan Mumford, with thanks to Melanie Greene)