Have you ever experienced this rather unsettling phenomenon? You are struggling with a seemingly insurmountable problem that you are sure is outside of anyone’s skill, ability or knowledge to crack. So you seek support, often from the nearest available person who might listen to your frustration.
You set out the problem so that they too can see how intractable it is. But then, as you explain the problem, something unexpected happens. You suddenly, realise exactly what you need to do. The answer, the next step, the solution all fall into place. And they have said nothing. What is happening here?
Psychologists, neuroscientists and educationalists all have something to say on this matter. And all tend to agree that “Thinking out loud” adds a whole new, valuable dimension to problem solving and therefore performance. As an executive coach, I frequently experience the power of this with my coachees. They will often marvel at the sudden realization of a way forward, just from the careful articulation of the problem that coaching requires.
Similarly, in my voluntary work as a Samaritan listener, I often hear the same effect happening down the indeterminate length of the telephone line with an anonymous caller. A person in need who sought a human, compassionate voice at any time of the day of night.
In both contexts we are offering something much more precious than good advice (indeed, to provide this is counter to our approach in both settings). We offer the space, active listening and presence (physical or virtual) for an individual to think out loud and discover their own way of dealing with whatever they are grappling with.
So what is happening here? Let’s start with the basics:
When we are sharing our thoughts out loud with another, we have to put them into a structure and form of words that make sense to them That often means that we tell a story; outlining the history, events and consequences in a more logical order than when these are ‘buzzing round’ in our heads. This can often help us to illuminate cause and effect; pinpoint key turning points in the narrative and even show where we have missed elements that have had a dramatic impact on the current situation.
When we explain our problems to someone else, we frequently have to assume no knowledge of the issue on their part. So, we have to start with the problem, not the emerging, ‘half-baked’ solutions that might have been continuously generated and rejected by our noisy minds.
Speaking out loud engages many more areas of the brain than simply thinking about a problem.Add to that the options of drawing, mapping or illustrating the components visually and a whole new set of neural pathways, memories and knowledge can be accessed and mined for ideas and solutions.
expressing our feelings (the frustration, sadness, anxiety and hopes) out loud can further help us to externalise these.We can examine them and then decide which are helpful and which are debilitating or destructive.Again, the ‘noise’ of these tumbling around within the internal world of thoughts, feelings, distractions and external demands can be quietened and then systematically listened to, as we unpack and then pay attention to them, one by one.
Why can’t we just ‘think out loud’ to our friends, our colleagues or our partner? An immediate and obvious answer is that each of these is likely to bring a strong set of assumptions, advice and personal agenda into the conversation. However well-meaning they may be, they are often intricately affected, instrumental or interested in the direction and outcomes of the conversation. So, we filter, present and embellish our conversation accordingly.
As a starting point then, a professional coach enables us to think out loud, without any of these contaminating elements. But much more than that, he or she will actively listen not just to what is said but also how it is said, as well as to what is not said. Careful probing, clarifying and summarizing helps the individual themselves to listen to what they have been saying. To question its accuracy and meaning.
Further, they can be gently encouraged to see the problem from others’ perspectives, considering what their intentions, motives and reactions might be. They can be asked questions that directly focus on what options there are for moving forward and encouraged to commit to undertaking one or more of these. And how powerful then, to be able to revisit and further check, probe and amend these actions in the next coaching session.
Most significantly, as trained and experienced coaches, we layer the benefits of this ‘talking out loud’ with a whole range of additional specialist skills and approaches that are tailored to the particular challenges and goals of the coachee. For example, examining core beliefs and challenging assumptions that prevent behavioural change; dealing with troublesome emotions; developing resilience and building self-confidence.
This is just a very short list from a much wider range of personal and organisational issues that frequently interplay with the initial presenting issue brought into the coaching conversation. A trained and experienced coach can ensure that underlying barriers can be gently but firmly examined, challenged and then tackled to achieve real commitment and change.
In this way, woven together across a number of structured and responsive sessions, the skills of the coach combine with the science of ‘thinking out loud’ to lead to something lasting and transformative.
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