How to Listen to People in a Way That Helps Them Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Time to Think" by Nancy Kline. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Would others say that you’re a good conversation partner? Do you hear people out and give them space to think?

Good thinking comes from good listening. That’s the view of Nancy Kline—a teacher, a researcher, and the author of Time to Think. She asserts that you can help people think through things by listening attentively for as long as they need, showing that you’re paying attention, and letting them express their emotions.

Read more for Kline’s advice on how to listen to people in a way that helps them think.

Good Thinking Comes From Good Listening

According to Kline, all our actions are dependent on the thinking that precedes them. Further, our thinking is dependent on how well others listen to us. Her research on students showed that, while factors like age, IQ, and experience had little impact on the students’ thinking, the attention that others paid them had a significant impact. Therefore, she reasoned, we can teach people to think well. And, in order to teach people to think well, we have to learn how to listen to people effectively. She used this insight as a foundation for studying how to elicit good thinking from others by paying attention to them and treating them well.

(Shortform note: The type and subject of the thinking that Kline studied in these students are unclear, as are the methods she used in her research. In Critical Thinking, Logic & Problem Solving, the authors also argue that good thinking can be taught, but they suggest that practice (rather than listening) is the best way to cultivate thinking skills. They recommend a four-step process for practicing your thinking skills that involves gathering information, analyzing, evaluating, and then improving on your process.)

How to Listen to People

The key to evoking high-quality thinking in others is to listen to them well. Kline provides a step-by-step process for conducting a productive conversation, or a thinking session, which maximizes the quality of both listening and thinking. You can employ such a session any time you want to help someone else think well, whether they’re attempting to solve a difficult problem at work, weighing their options regarding an important health decision, seeking to improve their relationships with others, brainstorming ideas for a creative project, or approaching any other situation that requires thinking. Similarly, if you need help thinking well, simply reverse the roles in the process listed below and have someone else listen to you.

(Shortform note: If you have a topic you need to think about and don’t have a listening partner available, other experts offer advice on how to think well on your own. In The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird explain that you can use techniques like trial and error, examining your perspective for bias, and gaining more knowledge about the topic at hand in order to think better.)

Listen Attentively for as Long as the Thinker Needs

The first step in the thinking session process is to give the thinker the opportunity to say everything that’s on their mind. Kline explains that your job as the listener is to pay attention as the thinker spells out everything about the topic they’re pondering. 

As a listener, begin by asking them what they think about the issue. Then, after they tell you what they think, ask them what else they think about it. Continue asking this until the thinker is certain they’ve said everything they want to say, then double-check this by asking “Are you sure?” before moving on to the next step.

According to Kline, the reason listening works so well for producing high-quality thinking in others is that, when someone identifies a problem, the solution is usually buried somewhere in their mind. The purpose of discussing an issue with someone to help them solve it isn’t to give them your ideas or decide what you should do for them. It’s to provide an environment that prompts them to uncover the solution themselves.

The Connection Between Talking and Thinking

Research shows that expressing our thoughts verbally helps us understand our thoughts. The thoughts in our minds tend to be condensed and unformed, but the cognitive process of putting them into words helps us access the full idea and triggers connections with new ideas. Additionally, it causes us to imagine the point of view of someone who’s listening to us, giving us a wider, more objective perspective. For these reasons, talking out loud to yourself can improve your thinking (another useful tactic if you have a topic you need to think about but don’t have a listening partner).

People also have differing communication styles, and Kline’s method of providing plenty of nonjudgmental space for sharing can help appeal to different styles. Some people suggest that some people have a talk-to-think style, meaning they process their ideas out loud as they’re expressing them. Others have a think-to-talk style, which means they reflect on and organize their thoughts before saying them out loud. A listening session with a talk-to-thinker might consist of a greater volume of talking, or it might begin with a lot of talking and then transition into longer periods of silence as the thinker considers what they’ve said. With a think-to-talker, there might be much longer pauses at the beginning of the session and more talking later.

The Importance of Attention

Throughout the thinking session, your attention to the thinker is paramount, explains Kline. Your role is to give the thinker time and space in which to think, so you should listen quietly.

Unfortunately, most of us were brought up to believe that good listening involves paraphrasing what the other person said and adding our own thoughts as often as possible. Kline argues that these behaviors limit the other person’s thinking. She adds that paraphrasing the other person’s words doesn’t actually indicate that you were listening well—in fact, it shows you weren’t listening well enough to remember exactly what they said. According to Kline, the thinker’s wording and phrasing are the best: those exact words are the ones that are the most meaningful to the thinker and the most compatible with how their brain works because they’re infused with the thinker’s background, knowledge, and experience. 

(Shortform note: Many of us learn active listening, an approach that recommends paraphrasing another person’s words to show you’re paying attention. In addition to the issues Kline notes, paraphrasing another person’s words to show attention may cause other problems: It can make the speaker think you agree with them even if you don’t, and it can annoy the other person if you do it too much. However, summarizing what another person’s saying can help you understand it better, so consider doing so silently so you don’t interfere with the other person’s thought process.)

Interrupting the speaker to finish their sentence is also a bad idea, according to Kline. This behavior shows the thinker that you think your words are just as good or better at conveying what they think, and it also shows impatience, which stifles good thinking. Because thinking requires time, there may be long stretches of time where the thinker is silent, but this still doesn’t mean you should interject your thoughts or try to prompt the thinker to continue. They’re using that time to process, and once they’re ready to continue, they’ll do so with greater understanding. 

(Shortform note: Other experts note that interrupting people is also bad for you, as the listener, because you’re denying yourself the time to consider their words and hear additional information that could affect the idea you’re about to express. It also makes you look rude and impulsive. And keep in mind that different people process information at different speeds, so you may need to wait without interruption for longer periods with some thinkers than with others.)

Show Attention Through Eye Contact and Facial Expressions

Kline also asserts that you should maintain eye contact with the thinker the entire time they’re talking. The thinker’s eyes may wander, but yours must stay on theirs, and your expression should remain one of polite interest. Kline does note that there are some cultures where eye contact is seen as disrespectful, so you should adapt her system to fit your culture and the culture of those participating in the conversation

(Shortform note: Culture isn’t the only thing that can affect a person’s ability or tendency to make eye contact and certain facial expressions. For example, blind people may not be able to perceive or engage in eye contact or normative facial expressions. Autistic people often find eye contact not only difficult, but genuinely distressing, and they’re often less facially expressive than allistic people. As Kline suggests in regard to different cultures, thinking sessions should be adapted to accommodate these differences.)

Let the Thinker Feel

Additionally, don’t try to avoid or quash the thinker’s feelings as they talk. While society has taught us that thinking and feeling are mutually incompatible, explains Kline, the reverse is actually true: Stifling emotions stifles thinking. In particular, crying is a natural physiological release that calms the mind and body and relieves pain. Allow the thinker to feel and express their emotions however they need so they can pursue their thoughts freely.

(Shortform note: Being able to express emotions verbally to another person can benefit not only thinking quality but also emotional state. Intense feelings can cause the body to go into fight-or-flight mode, but affect labeling (describing feelings in words) lessens this response and helps people feel better about the stressful situation. The clear structure of Kline’s recommended thinking session can also help the thinker avoid ruminating or fixating on negative feelings.)

How to Listen to People in a Way That Helps Them Think

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nancy Kline's "Time to Think" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Time to Think summary:

  • That what and how we think determines everything we do
  • Why the quality of your thinking depends on how well you listen to others
  • A step-by-step process for taking on the role of the listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.