Can you think of the last conversation you had where neither you nor any of your partners interrupted the speaker? Or tried to finish someone’s sentence? Or followed without missing a beat Bill’s story with one of your own? Or responded to Maria’s question with “well, what do you think?” instead of effortlessly moving into advice mode with “let me give you my two cents.”
Can you think of the last time you felt completely at ease in a conversation knowing your conversation partner would not: interrupt, try to finish your sentence, follow your story with her story, or jump quickly to offer advice?
If my recent conversations were recorded, you would hear me: prudently interrupt, helpfully complete sentences, constructively add a story, and sagely offer advice. I do all these things with the perverse idea that my conversation partner needs my mind more than her own.
Says Nancy Kline in Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, a terrific book I wished I had read 20 years ago, the first year it was published. If I had and taken the content to heart, I would have been a better partner, father, son, teacher, and friend. It’s not too late for me or you. Three sentences from Kline early in the book grabbed my attention.
"Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first…The quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking…Attention, the act of listening with palpable respect and fascination, is key."
Listening and Thinking
“Think before you act.” My mother said that to me a lot. So Kline’s first sentence was a nice reminder of a truism born out time and again throughout my life. See a stick on the sidewalk and it feels like a snake. But, pause, take three breadths, and the thinking and judgment part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, kicks in and tells you its a stick.
How does the quality of my attention, my listening, make you a better thinker? About 25 years into my 40 year college teaching career, I decided to move from a lecture format to a more Socratic question and answer pedagogy. Jenna, an excellent student, came to my office when I sent her a brief email asking why she was missing so many classes. “I came to Luther to interact with my professors,” she said, “not to sit in class and look at one power point slide after another.” I thought about what she said for a week and decided no more power points. Over the next couple of years I developed a more interactive class format that included questions on the day’s assigned material and mini-lectures for context.
More questions meant more student responses. And more opportunities for me to interrupt. Always with the best of intentions, of course. I thought interrupting to help finish a thought or guide a student to the correct interpretation of an idea or gently nudge them to an insight was proof I was a good listener. Perhaps, but my job was to help my students become better thinkers. Imagine, Kline writes, what it means to be in conversation with someone you know will not interrupt.
"To know you are not going to be interrupted allows your mind to dive, to skate to the edge and leap, to look under rocks, twirl, sit calculate, stir, toss the familiar and watch new ideas billow down. The fact that the person can relax in the knowledge that you are not going to take over, talk, interrupt, maneuver or manipulate is one of the key reasons they can think so well around you."
The key to all of this, says Klein, is attention, “the act of listening with respect and fascination.” I describe two examples, one from film and another from personal experience, of Klein’s ideas about how better listening can help encourage better thinking.
There’s a great thinking scene in the film 42, about Jackie Robinson’s 1947 experience as the first African-American to play in America’s baseball Major League. Robinson’s (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Philadelphia Phillies managed by Ben Chapman. Chapman had been shouting racial epithets at Robinson and after making an out Robinson carries his bat into the tunnel leading from the dugout to the dressing room. Furious at this treatment, Robinson smashes the bat against a wall and lets out a wail. Dodger owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) stands watching in the tunnel and then begins to move toward Robinson.
Smashing the bat and emoting a cry of emotional pain gave Robinson time for the thinking part of his brain to assert itself against the feeling part. And the Rickey character stands back and watches and as he watches he is listening to Jackie. He then moves forward and listens some more and then finally offered Jackie some advice. Rickey’s advice was for Robinson to channel his rage toward beating Chapman’s team which was what Jackie did. But Boseman and Ford played this scene in such a way as to suggest Robinson came to this solution on his own, with Rickey mostly an observer and listener.
An Electrician Thinks
“[Quality] listening is enzymatic,” says Klein. What better proof than to try it and see listening in action. Last week an electrician arrived at 8 a.m. to put in two or three new outlets. We have a house built in 1890 with an unfinished basement and thick sandstone walls. Electrical work has always been a challenge. We explained what we wanted but I had another agenda. My partner went up stairs to finish some work leaving me alone with Kyle. For about 30 minutes I observed him working out loud the various basement and wall problems. I did not interrupt and when he asked a question I responded with “what do you think?”
I enjoyed observing Kyle’s mind at work. I tried to create an atmosphere full of what Klein calls ease. Ease is “a presence defined by an absence…[and] allows the human mind to broaden and reach.” Regardless of intention, interruptions create a sense of urgency. And Klein rightly says that “urgency keeps people from thinking clearly.” Unlike urgency, ease is a catalyst. Here’s Klein again.
"Ease conceives and grows cymbal-crashing exciting thoughts from the thinker. The loose, leaning-back, breathing-out, smiling, keenly attentive, confident, unrushed presence blasts lucid ideas out of otherwise impenetrable vaults of confusion and doubt…Ease creates…Urgency destroys."
It’s not me it’s you
The secret to quality attention and quality listening is to switch my focus from me to you. That’s a skill and takes practice. I can focus inward, on my thoughts and ideas. And that leads me to want to interrupt you. Or I can focus outward, on your thoughts and ideas. And while I am doing that, search for questions that encourage you to keep thinking. In the Art of Loving, Erich Fromm said, “it is not possible to respect another person without really knowing him.” I can only know you if I listen well. And by listening carefully, I inevitably see your interesting mind at work.
You have my permission to return the favor.