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Because Of Our Quiet? by Ruth McCarthy

This article was first published in The Listener – a journal for coaches 

Pick a song, a really easy song like ‘Happy Birthday to you’. Find a partner. Clap out the tune to your partner. Ask them what the song is. Clap it out again. Now can they guess?

Chances are very high (98%) that they won’t. In the world that most people live in most of the time, at work with our colleagues, at home with family and friends, this entertaining experiment is a powerful metaphor for all those listening / talking interactions that don’t work out well because we aren’t tuning in to each other, because we’re clapping when we could be humming and because we don’t listen long enough to identify the tune.

Listening to others while they talk is a perfectly ordinary daily activity that for most people passes under the radar. Why would anyone think about how they listen? The decision to focus on the activity of listening is something that those outside a growing circle of practitioners (including coaches, therapists and readers of The Listener) may well find a shade esoteric.

Starting from the perspective of examining listening as a discrete activity this article is going to offer a description of two possible “worlds” of listening and thinking, go on to explore the differences between them and then consider what might happen if we choose to move between them.

Two worlds of thinking  

At the Association for Coaching Conference in London last September Nancy Kline of Time to Think gave a keynote address on the subject of “Listening to Inspire”, introducing a model of two worlds of thinking: the world of Independent Thinking and that of Exchange Thinking. Her suggestion was that the world of Exchange Thinking is the world that we live in, work in, do business and form relationships in, seek advancement and advice in – the logical, linear western world where listening is characterised by the wish to reply. What about the world of Independent Thinking?

Here are brief definitions: 

The world of Exchange is permeated by the desire to educate, advise, inform, pre- empt and/or dominate one to one or in groups. Exchange thinking involves the swapping of information points, lots of quick interactions in a group or individually and the fast generation of ideas in quantity rather than in depth. Exchange thinking is competitive, generally forms the basis for all monetised or rewarded advice giving, and is the default mode for western interactions, in the boardroom and round the family table. It is characterised by urgency, by the driving wish to make a point, and by the hunger to speak. This world surrounds us.

By contrast, the world of Independent Thinking is harder to locate. This is a world where the overwhelming desire to be ‘right’ and expert is replaced by a driving wish to inspire new thinking. In the world of Independent thinking the desire to give attention to others while they think is experienced as more productive and rewarding than the attachment to speaking. This world is characterised by ease, by a contract to give attention with deep respect, and by the hunger to listen. This is the world of whole-brained thinking discussed and described by writers and thinkers like Daniel Pink and Dan Siegel, Iain McGilchrist and, of course, by Nancy Kline herself. It’s a world that assumes that people wish to think freely and independently one to one or in groups, in a manner that welcomes silence, deliberately creates ease and appreciates the challenge of differing viewpoints and are capable of doing so.


2  Where we mostly live  

It does seem that we live mostly in a world of Exchange Thinking. At school learning occurs mostly through a model of Exchange Thinking culminating in verbal and written exams. (It is argued that the UK school population is both the most examined in the world and among the least happy and successful: We experience our leaders, lawyers, doctors, accountants and other advice providers as valuable, in direct relation to how much information they impart (and by implication what they tell us to think); they value themselves via their capacity to contribute ideas quickly and to correct thinking, often in advance. This way of being is potent, and it promotes the desire to reply above the desire to listen. It seeks to answer questions before they have been asked.

It’s fair to say that much of this serves the world reasonably well, at least some of the time. And it’s also well worth asking the question ‘what are we missing?’ In the world of Exchange Thinking it seems the average length of time we get to speak before someone interrupts our thoughts with their own thinking is brief. Studies done in the US indicate that the longest average time we can anticipate before interruption is about 20 seconds, and that it can be as little as 8 seconds.

Which doesn’t seem to be very long. Just how far can an idea go, or something serious and new develop in 20 seconds? Especially when we know just how much the brain likes to take the line of least resistance, and obediently go where it has been before?

There is a growing understanding of the impact sudden interruption can have on our limbic system. Highly developed as it is, the limbic system has only two choices in response to new information arriving through the brainstem: these are approach or defence. The choice is made by the guardhouse of the limbic system, the ever-alert amygdalae, one for each hemisphere of the brain. If the amygdalae “read” the new information as benign and remain calm neurons will fire and wire, creating new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex, leading to new thoughts and ideas. If the amygdalae “read” sudden interruption as hostile, defence hormones are immediately triggered; these include adrenaline and cortisol, which stimulate our stress responses (fight, flight or freeze) and actively prevent the successful linking of neuron to neuron. Either way, this happens in less than a fifth of a second, so we have no chance of controlling the response.

This explains what happens in a meeting when someone cuts you off with a dismissive comment and takes over the conversation. For some this produces a “freeze” response, and explains why the brilliant riposte simply can’t be produced at the right time, the neurons are incapable of connecting in that moment. For others the adrenaline will set up a “fight” response, so the discussion becomes aggressive and almost certainly pointless: the stress response is reducing the oxygen supply to the brain and minimising neuron activity, so the interrupted thinker is most likely to stick to the same ideas and will experience any further comments as potentially hostile. Which sends discussion round in circles.

3 Take time out 

If we take time out of Exchange Thinking to set things up differently, using a fair yet rigorous protocol that guarantees equal time to everyone in the group in return for a promise to be succinct, and then set ourselves to really hear what people are saying, this prevents interruption, introduces ease and frees up the group from the usual internal rush to compete and “win” the discussion. Instead each participant is heard in turn and a range of new and potentially important things are said, information lands well and is understood, beliefs and positions change. In this world of Independent Thinking fresh ideas can spring up and new possibilities develop free of the limbic disturbance inevitably if unknowingly caused by interruption.

From that first experience all kinds of interesting actions and dynamics can flow. If people listen so they really understand what each other thinks then time and energy is saved, and new solutions emerge quickly. It also means that minds are engaging in a much deeper, more human way – in a way that tells each person that their thinking is valuable, building trust and more honest and vital communication. This is the Thinking Environment® way of being in a group, or one to one in coaching; a way of giving profound attention so that people articulate perhaps for the first time what it is they think and feel about a situation or problem – and usually go on to discover what it is they need to do about it. This is listening to ignite.

If you agree with someone else to listen to them without interrupting for 3-minute turns each way, you’re offering each other a listening / speaking possibility that is 9 times longer than the maximum you might have experienced before. For those conditioned to expect interruption to their thoughts and ideas at 20-second intervals (for example most newly- arrived coaching clients) this concept of uninterrupted thinking time can be quite a challenge. Arriving at a point where we have to go on with our own thinking rather than be relieved by the arrival of someone else’s ideas can feel a bit like missing that proverbial step on the stairs. Yet taking the plunge and going on past the previous sticking point, prompted only by the clean question “What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?” our thinking moves freely into deeper levels. In the ease created by knowing we won’t be interrupted, and with the limbic system calm and receptive, the systems activation of the pre-frontal cortex creates new “firing”; new neural pathways that will result in clearer, better thinking and new ideas and solutions. Paul Brown, Ian McGilchrist, and Daniel Kahnemann are among those writing and speaking about these differences, and the hugely beneficial results of giving attention in this way.

4  The quality of attention  

The most recent developments in neuroscience, evidenced through fMRI scanning, now seem to indicate that giving attention in a way that is entirely non-judgemental, in a way that says to the thinker “I am fascinated by the fact that you are thinking and will give attention like this until you are finished. I will not interrupt you – ever” has a measurable effect on the depth and quality of the thinker’s brain activity. In a conversation with Nancy Kline on this subject Professor Paul Brown said:’’I think I know why this works. I think this quality of attention and its generative silence calm  the amygdalae, open the limbic system, and hold it open so that the brain can rearrange the architecture of the client’s life (both neurologically, and metaphorically). It is I think the quality of the attention, of the silence, that allows for this calming, and this sustained opening. It is not that as therapists and coaches we have never done this, we have, of course; but haphazardly; whereas in this process, it happens every time.”

Or, borrowing the perfect words of W B Yeats (who seems to have found his own way into a world of independent thinking):

We can make our minds so like still water That beings gather about us
That they may see, it may be
Their own images 

And so live for a moment
With a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life Because of our quiet. 


Brown, Paul (2012): Neuropsychology for Coaches
Kahnemann, Daniel (2011): Thinking, Fast and Slow
Kline, Nancy (2009): More Time to Think
Marvel MK, Epstein RM, Flowers K & Beckman HB) (1999): Soliciting the patient’s agenda: have we improved? in JAMA 281(3):283-287.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010): The Master and His Emissary Pink, Daniel (2008): A Whole New Mind
Siegel, Daniel (2010): Mindsight

Ruth McCarthy is a certified coach and Associate Member of the Association for Coaching., She delivers the renowned Time to Think Thinking Partnership courses and Foundation Courses in facilitation and leadership, and as well as bespoke training. She chairs a national grant-making Trust, holds an MA in Critical and Cultural Studies, is an advisor to the Board Advisory Partnership and a Fellow of the RSA. Ruth can be contacted at