2.3 Supporting colleagues in exploring the unknown

Supporting your colleagues should come with some health warnings. We are not about to advocate the picking over of people’s language in silly, microscopic ways – that would be a recipe for paralysis. Likewise, we recognise that some people are more fluent than others verbally. Some people may, for example, much prefer listening, thinking and then composing their thoughts, in order to re-enter conversations later, either verbally or in writing. We have to be sensitive to the fact that sometimes people may simply feel unprepared or ambushed.

Now to explore the practical implications of our analysis. Interrupting someone in full flow, even when they are stumbling, is usually a bad idea. Some people do so for the best of reasons – empathy usually. We have all floundered when speaking and it is often welcome for someone to come to our rescue when we do so. Others interrupt simply because they like to be heard. The key here is to allow people the space to express themselves and to feel secure in doing so.

Next, we might consider training our ears to pay attention to the way people express themselves, as well as to what they are saying. In the case of Filo, we would train ourselves to pick out the points at which she stumbled and then see where she took her speech next. Did she try to change the subject or did she allow her thoughts to play out? If the former, then we could support her in revisiting those moments of uncertainty, conveying the fact that we are happy to explore uncertain and unknown terrain together. Remember that it is fine to not know the answer. Exploring the unknown together is the whole point.

We might also reflect back to Filo where we noticed her becoming particularly emotional. Although it is a terribly British thing to overlook such moments and pretend that they did not happen, it may be more valuable to explore why people feel strongly about something.

Of course, we might also intervene along the way in subtle ways, particularly if we sense that the speaker’s speech is in danger of collapsing entirely. Bear in mind, however, that silence is a subjective experience. What can seem like an age of silence in conversation for some can feel like merely a few reflective moments for others. Intervening acts might be as simple as some nodding of the head or a small affirmative noise expressing approval. You could repeat back what you have just heard the speaker say, inviting correction or an expansion of the point. Finally, you could ask a probing question in order to further open up the thinking of the speaker.

It is to this practice of asking questions that we now turn.

2.2 Communicating the unknown

3 Stretch questions and exploring the unknown