8 Jul 2009

The Tipping Point of Listening

Posted by paulandrew

sm-scale-scxhu-875412-c-stephen-staceyIn great Supportive Listening conversations, there is often a special moment that I call “the tipping point of listening.” This is the point in the conversation when the speaker really gets it, that I’m creating space for them to solve the problem, and that I’m just not going to jump in with suggestions. And that’s the point when the speaker’s problem solving energy really gets going. I had a powerful experience around this just the other day.

So there I am doing Supportive Listening for a colleague who wants to talk about a business challenge he’s facing around the topic of “focus.” Our conversation begins, he lays out the details around his challenge with focus, and then he turns to me and says “So Paul, how do I deal with this?”

Now consider how easy it would be for me as a listener to slip into the role of coach and start guiding the conversation, or to slip into the role of consultant, and tell him what to do.

But I’m very clear here that I see the potential for listening to work its magic in helping my colleague discover his own great insights. It’s a possibility that is often not explored, I believe to the detriment of the speaker.

And so with that conviction around the power of listening, I make a conscious decision not to coach, not to consult, but just to listen. I’m there to be a faithful Supportive Listener, thus giving him the space to take the lead.

I count off a few silent breaths, waiting to see if he’s going to continue talking. But he doesn’t and so I recount his challenge with a WIG. But to my brief recounting of what he’s said, he quickly shoots back “OK, so what do I do?!”

Aha, so he’s pressing me to weigh in with an opinion, to put me in the role of problem solver! But I firmly believe in him, that he’s up to this challenge. Plus experience tells me that once I “grab the microphone” and give him even a bit of advice, it’s hard to hand that microphone back to him, and get his problem solving energy going again.

So instead of answering his query, I bounce the question back to him, “Yeah, what DO you do?” And then I wait.

In that moment the shift happens. He takes a deep breath and says “Well I do a lot of things! Let me give you an example…” and then he’s off and running, analyzing his own situation, now that we’ve established that he’s going to be the problem solver. We’ve crossed the tipping point of listening.

And from that point on, it’s quite easy to do Supportive Listening for him. I just pay close attention to what he says, I offer him a WIG when he’s done, and then he thinks of something new and starts talking again. This rhythm opens up new tracks of thinking for him, and he proceeds to identify the key factors that are playing into his issue around “focus.”

Afterward, when I asked him what he’d gotten from our conversation, he said something interesting. Even though he’d been somewhat aware of these factors before, he hadn’t realized how central they were to the challenges he’s been facing.

I am often amazed at how well Supportive Listening works, without guiding or directing, in helping people to get at the heart of their challenge. Thus I’d like to encourage you to explore this less trodden path, of the role of the committed listener. And if you can stay there long enough, you may reach that magical point in the conversation, where the speaker firmly takes the lead and their insights start to flow. This is the tipping point of listening.

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2 Responses to “The Tipping Point of Listening”

  1. This reminds me of my therapy sessions. Therapists are not supposed to give advice to people either. They mostly just ‘listen’ and lead you to the direction YOU want to go. They may make suggestions, but they don’t solve problems for you.

    One time, I remember I wasn’t even sure what my problems were, but as I was talking and her listening, by the time I realized I laid out all the issues that I had. ‘How did it happen?’, then she said, ‘well you talked about them, I didn’t do anything.’

    That said, I still appreciate when people make suggestions to gain different insights.



  2. Thanks Yoko. Yeah isn’t it amazing what we can come up with on our own, if we’re just given the right kind of space and support?

    What I’ve noticed is that sequence-wise, if I’m giving the insights first, then it’s harder for me to get going and do my own thinking.

    So these days I try to default to listening first–I think it’s the most delicate mode of interaction, and yet also holds the most potential.



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