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From the Productive Meetings Manual
This is a fundamental method which, with Go-Rounds, provides the basis for an inclusive and productive meeting. If no other methods are learnt and applied besides these two, significant advances will still have been made.
Learning to give AND receive good attention is essential in designing good teamwork practices and Think & Listens (or T&Ls) are the most basic 'building block' for having very effective meetings and moving on projects (especially in Leader-Full organizations) in a quick and focused way: see Attentive & Multi-Functional Listening for more details.
Work in pairs for a Think and Listen. For half the time one person is the thinker and the other the listener. At half time the roles reverse. The facilitator manages the timing.
During their thinking turn each person is encouraged to think out loud without necessarily making any sense to the listener. The thinking turn is for the thinkers benefit. It is a time for the thinker to collect and develop their thoughts at their own pace and in their own way.
The listener makes no comments and asks no questions but does make encouraging sounds and movements to indicate that their attention to the listener is active.
During the Think and Listen time meeting members address a topic proposed by the facilitator.
Common time periods for a Think and Listen are two to five minutes each (known as 2 by 2 or 5 by 5). Skilled groups can work outside these boundaries using one minute by one minute Think & Listens to good effect or, for complex matters, ten minutes each way. It is almost always better to pop in a short Think and Listen, however brief, than to do without.
What the thinker speaks about and how their thinking develops is confidential, known only to themselves and the listener. The listener makes no reference to what has been said by their thinker, either to the thinker or to anyone else, unless the thinker clearly gives their permission for this to happen.
Why it works
A Think and Listen is a method for Putting Aside Time to Think. Time to think allows participants to um and err, try out ideas, abandon those with little promise and settle on those with real potential, safe in the knowledge that their wanderings are private and confidential.
Subsequently, when the facilitator requests peoples views on the topic in hand, they can expect the feedback to be more thorough and useful than it would have been without a Think and Listen.
A Think and Listen also gives people an opportunity to speak. They may have been listening carefully to a presentation, taking in what is said. Now they can reverse the flow by speaking out their thoughts. This greatly improves their grasp of the material and alleviates the fatigue that comes from continual inputs.
Once people relax they find having an attentive, approving and patient listener alongside helps the quality of their thinking. With good attention they often discover some new thoughts and surprise themselves. This effect is summed up by the phrase, "I often dont know what I am thinking until I have said it".
Because the listener knows that their turn for uninterrupted thinking time is coming shortly they are able to suspend any urges to involve themselves with their thinkers thinking by interrupting, asking for explanations or otherwise "joining in". Some people do find the listening role very difficult and have to sit on their hands to prevent themselves from interrupting. These people (and their colleagues) will benefit most from the method in the long run but may need some unobtrusive supervision early on.
The method is simplicity itself. But it does present people with significant challenges.
This is often the first new method introduced to a group. It is so different from normal conversations and discussions with their interruptions and digressions that people can feel awkward with it. Keep the time fairly short for the first few goes to avoid those difficult empty spaces.
The awkwardness soon tails off as a group becomes more practised. However the facilitator needs to be ready to reassure people that any discomfort is temporary and that empty spaces are valuable as opportunities to gather thoughts (or rest). Once a group is skilled at Think and Listens the reverse effect appears. That is, if there isnt a Think and Listen scheduled when it is needed the group may protest at its absence.
Thinkers may need to be reminded that the time is for their benefit. They are not expected to make a coherent speech to their listener, nor convince their listener of their point of view. There is no need to prepare in advance. Only they will report on their thinking to the larger group.
Very occasionally a member of the group will find the space provided by a Think and Listen just too much and will continually ask their listener for feedback. This may be because this person has not had anyone listen to them before, or has been told that they are stupid and therefore does not value their own thinking. Pair this person with someone who has obviously good attention and not with people who need to sit on their hands. Someone with good attention enjoys listening to other people and encourages others by their presence.
For the listener, besides avoiding the pull to join in with the thinker, the biggest challenge is to avoid any attempt to compose their own speeches ready for their turn whilst listening.
It will take several goes (perhaps three or four) for a group to feel at home with Think and Listen. After each go ask for feedback - "what was it like to have interruption free thinking time?", "what was it like to be the listener?. This feedback will provide opportunities to repeat the instructions and to answer any queries.
Q. What happens if the thinker speaks about something the listener wants to respond to?
A. The listener definitely does not make a response during the thinkers time. They may do so during their own thinking time but only if they ask permission to do this.
Q. Help, I wont be able to fill the time when it's my turn to think out loud?
A. Rarely a problem. Although people might be hesitant at the start they usually respond well to good listening and find they have plenty to say. However it is quite acceptable for a thinker to think quietly to themselves for all or part of their turn. The listener still gives good attention even when the thinker is silent.
Think and Listen is a versatile method due to its simplicity, the small amount of time it takes and the universal benefits arising from Putting Aside Time to Think.
Applications include (and this list is by no means exhaustive):
To allow people to explore what they already know about a situation or a subject.
After a presentation in which case people may use a Think and Listen to generate comments or questions. This works even in very large groups.
To generate options for decision making. For choosing between options. For making commitments to action.
During preparations for presentations, when writing reports or planning meetings and in any other circumstance where a person may get 'stuck' and feel unable to proceed.
Prior to the start of business to off-load any matters that are pulling people's attention away from being present.
On arrival home after work or at any other transition point when often there is competition for attention.
Allow time at the beginning for people to find partners (work with someone you dont know is a useful suggestion) and to work out who is Thinking first.
At half time call out your own version of "OK folks thats the first three minutes over, time to finish what you are saying and then to change roles, one to think and the other to listen" (low, slow, deep voice carries best). And at the end, "OK folks, that's it, lets gather round for the next stage in proceedings".
A timer that bleeps so everyone can hear is a great aid. Some timers come with a memory and reset to show the same time, each time, and are excellent.
Allow turn round time in the swap over and allow finishing time at the end. A 3 by 3 might take 10 minutes , a 5 by 5 might take 15 minutes.
remember the time is for you
need to appear bright or knowledgeable
look at your partner be active in your listening
ask questions interrupt
try to clarify
Apart from helping a great deal in 'thinking out aloud', it is also very effective as an emotional release tool. Often we don't know, or don't want to have to justify, why we feel as we do, but it is still very useful to share our emotional state with someone else.
This method originally comes from the RC model which in turn grew a big community of practice that has perfected "discharge tools" a great deal during more than 50years of action learning.
This is not in the Manual, but was added by us as a quick reminder of what we're doing when we're (really) listening in this way.
Although at first using a timer can feel 'artificial' or awkward in some way, we find with practice that ensuring we give everyone equal time is very important to -
1) keep meetings short & focused where they need to be,
2) for everyone to know how long the whole process will take,
3) and to establish trust, as setting good clear boundaries (and respecting them), builds trust.
So don't skip the steps of first agreeing how much time you will each have, then putting on a timer (and not going over your time, although of course you can finish the sentence if the timer goes off in the middle of one).
We are often not taught to listen in a truly attentive way, in a society that encourages individualism, self-centredness and especially where so many of us are starved of good attention...
So Think & Listens are very good training for becoming very good listeners, which is an essential observation skill for good designers.
One way of learning to listen well AND at the same time make the Think & Listens also serve to document designs or move us on in our leadership and group work ...
is to set up regular T&Ls for each person to think aloud about the progress of one their respective designs, or a role they are taking in a group.
Whilst the talker talks, the listener takes notes, aiming to write down everything the speaker says in their own words, exactly as they say it. The note-takers' role is NOT to summarize, edit or re-phrase anything, just take exact notes (this is what helps in learning to listen accurately: ask for feedback later on how well you heard what the talker said!)
Note-taking is quite easy if you type fast, but if you don't, you can write by hand and then type the notes up so the other person can have them - which they can edit as they wish, later.