What else?

17 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

When I first started to become aware of and interested in the topic of leadership I was given a fascinating book by Nancy Kline “Time to Think”  about how to be a good and effective listener. I had read various articles before on how to give and take feedback etc. but listening as an active act, while intuitively a super easy thing, was never something I had given much thought to. The book was given to me by my first official mentor, whom I met every three weeks and who left me speechless and transformed every single time. When I asked him just how he achieved that, he gave me that book.

One particular point was about “letting people finish their sentences”. Obvious, right?! Nobody likes to be interrupted. And yet we do it all the time ourselves. Apart from it being respectful behaviour, the actual magic in allowing somebody to really think things through, to give somebody the time to find the right words for their thoughts and emotions, without having the urge to speed up (because in a way we all expect to be cut short at some point), the actual magic comes in the few moments after the last words have been spoken.

Letting somebody speak without restriction takes some self-constraint (even a deeper or sharp breath can signal to the other person that you are about to interrupt them) and it can, no doubt, take some time. But it’s one of the most powerful things you can do. Giving somebody the time and space to think and really listen to their words, instead of simultaneously starting to formulate your own thoughts – as soon as that starts to happen, you stop listening with your full attention – is a real sign of respect and love. Instead of jumping in with your opinion, your advice, your judgement or a summary of what you’ve just heard, don’t say anything. Let the spoken words sink in, fill the space and allow for silence to take over. It usually only takes a few seconds before the other person starts to talk again, but usually in a different way. Not only have you heard the spoken words, but it may have been the first time for your counterpart too. Repeat this cycle as long as words still come out. Remember: you don’t say a word. Only when really nothing else comes out, when all words seem to have been spoken, you ask: “What else?”

This short and simple question can have a big impact. Like a digger, it can take away some stuff and unveil something that lies deeper. In most cases, there is something else. Something that may have seemed unimportant, irrelevant, embarrassing or too dangerous to say before – but it’s often exactly in that moment, that something important bubbles to the surface. And even if nothing is being said out loud, the real thinking happens in that moment, in the quiet gap between words, when the initial thoughts and words have been released and when the other person feels safe to be given the time and space necessary for deep thinking. The kind of thinking that can be transformative.

When the other person shares with you what’s going on inside their head, it can be miles away from what you may have guessed and from where you may have taken the conversation if you had taken over. It’s fascinating to experience how different our thoughts can be, when given the opportunity. After a while, you may ask the same question again, or a variation of it (“Is there anything else?”) – again, this can take some time until the other person says “no” (with surprise, relief, concern). Even if there are no more thoughts or words to be thought or said at that very moment, the process usually continues well beyond that particular conversation.

I have used that technique on a number of occasions myself and I have spent long stretches during many business meetings or coaching sessions barely saying a word. The effect was usually quite enormous and I would say I have earned some respect in those moments. At first it takes getting used to as we are all so used to interrupting people. Even if we do it with good intentions, the act of interrupting somebody’s words means we don’t actually take their thinking as something important. We interrupt because we think we know what the other person is going to say, because we consider our thoughts and words as more important and/or because we are not capable of being patient enough to wait for our turn. In any case, interrupting is a selfish act. We are all so conditioned by it, that we often don’t even realise when we do it ourselves.

Giving somebody the time and space to think and speak is a virtue that can have a very powerful effect. At first, you may think that you are not doing anything. But using those two words “What else?” in the right moment, makes you an active process facilitator. And very often in life, the real magic lies within the right questions we can ask, not within the answers we could give.

Picture: Skitterphoto via Pixabay / CC0

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