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Listening is probably a vital part of your volunteering role - but are you really listening?

From the September 1999 issueHere Nancy Kline explains how to improve the quality of your listening to create a ‘Thinking Environment’. This method not only helps you to help people think for themselves but can also transform the way you think, work and live.

The quality of our thinking depends on the quality of our attention for each other - if we listen to other people respectfully, then they begin to think for themselves, clearly and afresh. Create the right conditions, and people will think for themselves. It sounds simple, but it happens so rarely. Yet creating a Thinking Environment is not difficult to do. We can do it anywhere at any time: in the office, waiting for a bus, walking the dog, on the phone, between the sheets and across even the most mahogany of boardroom tables.


Attention, the act of listening with palatable respect and fascination, is the key to a Thinking Environment. 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, or walk away. We give advice, give advice, give advice. Listening to each other requires discipline and the most profound attention for each other.

We are taught that the best help we can be to people is to tell them what to think. But this 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, or 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.

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 also contains the solution. Then set up the conditions for them to find it.


What is it about interruption that is so tantalising? We seem unable to resist doing it. Why is it so difficult just to breathe out and let the person finish their own sentence for themselves?

When you finish someone’s sentence for them you are assuming:

  • that they cannot finish it themselves before the world ends

  • that your words will be their words or better

  • that it won’t hurt them if you do, and waiting another giga-second for them to finish will damage you.

Silly, isn’t it? None of these bears out. In fact, most of the time we are wrong about what the person is going to say. Usually they come up with a completely different word or phrase. Often they find in their own mind a much more rich expression. They nearly always come up with a word or phrase that is more precise, more colourful, more theirs.

So sit back and let them search. The search and the saying add to the quality of their thinking, to their process of understanding, of sorting things out, of gaining insight.

The point is not the word. The point is their internal experience. Only they can do that. Like almost everything in a Thinking Environment, you cannot do it for them. And ‘staying out of their way’ nearly always takes less time and produces more.

To be interrupted is not good. To get lucky and not be interrupted is better. But to know you are not going to be interrupted - that is categorically different. That is bliss. 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, manoeuvre or manipulate is one of the key reasons they can think so well around you.

This article is an extract from Nancy Kline’s Time to Think - Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, £9.99, published by Ward Lock. Nancy Kline, a founder of Time to Think Inc, will be running a workshop and speaking at the closing plenary of the National Volunteering Convention.

© Volunteering England, 2005