How to work in the space of not-knowing

When you listen to other people, you work in the space of not-knowing, even if you don’t realise it.  Whether you're a coach, leader, manager, teacher, parent, friend, sibling, or part of any other relationship, professional or personal, you will spend some time listening. Some of us more than others. It is this skill of listening that allows transformation to occur. 

How are you listening to others? 

It can be hard work to listen; particularly when something the other person says triggers a memory, story or piece of advice you want to share. We might wait for a pause, ask a ‘good’ question or we might even manage not to interrupt. But, are we really hearing what the other person is saying and why they are saying it? Are we interested AND curious? Most of us have good intentions when it comes to sharing our experience and wisdom, we want to help the other person. But does it really help them or does it interrupt their own thinking? 

Are you paying attention?

Transformational listening means paying attention. It means looking for what’s not said, what’s left out, and the words they use to mask those emotions that feel hard to acknowledge. It is about approaching what’s been said as though you’ve never heard it before.

Learning to listen as if the information is new is useful for hearing things differently and even, perhaps, making progress. Remember: a person saying the same thing over and over again is probably doing so because they don’t feel heard.

Working in the space of not-knowing

Piqued your interest? Great. But how to work in the space of not-knowing? First I think I need to define what that means! For me, it is getting yourself into the mindset of when you are no longer limited by what you know in order for deeper knowing to emerge, full of possibilities and wisdom.

But that’s only half the story, it is also enabling the other person to wholly think for themselves and giving them an experience where they can be uninterrupted and know that you will be genuinely curious about what they are saying. 

I think that when you hear the phrase not-knowing it sounds like not knowing what to do - that feeling of being stuck, which leads us to try to rescue others/ourselves and solve the ‘problem’. But it’s actually giving yourself permission to not step in and fix the issue…which is harder than it sounds if you have rescuing tendencies. 

Five tips on how to work in the space of not-knowing

Make space

If you are rushing from one meeting/task to the next or if you are trying to listen whilst you’re doing something else - you can’t listen well. Block out time in the diary to gift to yourself/someone else the space to really listen to them. If you can, clear your mind before you start through meditation, journaling or getting up and moving. Remind yourself how important this is. 

Develop an exploratory mindset

The fear of the unknown is powerful. It is what drives us to rush in and find a solution, any solution so that we can feel we have made a difference. But it’s not always possible and it’s OK not to solve a problem. The greatest gift you can give to someone else is to be curious about what they’re going to say, giving them your full attention and noticing what they’re saying (or not). It’s OK to ask for more information - as long as that information is useful to them (not your own nosiness!) e.g. What are you not saying when you say, “I’m fine”? What emotions could you replace those words with?

Allow them space to think for themselves

This means actively not giving them answers, advice, or anecdotes - unless they specifically ask for it. Even then, you can bat the question back to them with a ‘what would you advise to a friend?’ question if you don’t feel your experience is relevant. They likely know the answer to their own question deep down. 

There are no rules

If you feel that they’re talking but not getting anywhere, you can interrupt (with permission), you can allow long silences or you can cut a silence short with an observation. The key is acting with permission and making sure you keep it all about them. 

Tap into your intuition

Your intuition is compassionate, kind, and gentle. You will know the right thing to say if you need to say it. You will also know when to be silent and sit with the other person. Trust yourself. 

Working in the space of not knowing makes us vulnerable and that’s OK. It’s about creating a space where you allow the talker to feel the same. When you feel like someone has really listened to you, it connects you to that other person and you strengthen your bond. 

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