Following a successful first career in hardback book publishing and journalism, and taking a career break to have her two daughters, Ruth trained as a coach in the mid-1990’s mentoring young people into new jobs at post university level. She discovered the power of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment® in 2007 while in an exciting if short-lived role at Future Prospect, a private mentoring start-up. Ruth began her Thinking Environment® training with Nancy Kline in January 2008 and describes it as ‘transformational.’
Twelve years of clearer thinking later, and now a member of the Global Faculty at Time to Think, Ruth leads TTT programmes and courses from her own consultancy www.thinkitthrough.co.uk. She regularly works in-house for businesses and corporations and freely admits she is ‘on a mission to improve the world of work one meeting at a time’. More recently Ruth has made the great leap forward in taking the TTT courses online, which she says is a hugely rewarding challenge in all kinds of ways.
Sue: Welcome Ruth! I am so interested in the work you are doing and your passion for helping us all to listen to each other. What was it that drew you to this work?
Ruth: It was a light bulb moment when I was on the training course with Nancy Kline. I remember her asking me what I assumed was holding me back from deciding what to do next. I had this rush of energy that happens when somethings that’s been standing in your way gets out of your way. I suddenly could see the way ahead and realised how much our assumptions lock us in. I came away with such a sense of purpose, although not quite knowing exactly where to put this into action. I just knew what I wanted and needed to do most in the world was to think for and as myself, and to support other people to do that too. And, now I spend as much time as I can helping people to discover the extraordinary liberation of thinking for themselves. Often, they need to learn to listen first.
Sue: That’s not as easy as it sounds!
Ruth: Well, at one end of the spectrum, there’s the usual situation where we have very busy, seemingly interactive conversations. But people aren’t listening or being heard, which means they’re not understood. This is very damaging.
Rather than being heard, we have interruption; it comes as direction; correction; advice, but above all as listening to reply. Listening to reply blocks the brain. It blocks the mind from understanding the content as we’re so busy with creating the reply or just looking for the gaps. And, at the other end we have the drama of polarised binary thinking.
Sue: Can you explain what polarised binary thinking means in this context.
Ruth: I think it bedevils our world, and one reason is because vested interests have taken up the power of social media to interrupt people’s thinking. Social media can produce and promote carefully devised and powerful messaging, which are seriously influential and really dangerous in the hands of those looking to manipulate how people think.
I mean, this is 1984 we’re now in. It’s happened. We are all susceptible, but I think those who put themselves in the way of social media messaging without any filtering will develop binary beliefs. Brexit is a good example. It’s so black or white. Race is another example, tragically. When people polarise like this, they are unable to hear. They cannot listen to the other side. I’m not saying Time to Think is the answer, but I do think the only answer is to have people sit with each other and actually agree to listen for just three minutes to what the other person has to say. And then another three minutes. And then another three minutes until they start to really hear each other.
Sue: How can we learn to open up to be actually present to someone else for three minutes?
Ruth: I don’t claim to have the answers, but I think it’s about modelling this first, and then persuading people to try it out for themselves. It’s also about helping people to go beyond a mindset which isn’t so fear driven by social media messaging. But this is a huge political issue too. We have a Government which is gaslighting those who don’t agree with their policies.
Dominic Cummings is the ‘gas lighter’ extraordinary. It goes like this. You do it. Then you deny you did it. And, then you cast aspersions consistently on people who dare to interrogate you. It’s classic. This is what bullies do, and it’s a renowned technique of narcissists. It makes people anxious and then uncertain of themselves, and it’s hard to get people to think well when they are fearful. I don’t know the answer to any of this other than putting two people in a room together to listen to each other.
Sue: I guess it’s about being courageous enough to be receptive. But it can be incredibly frightening for people to do this, so how do you work with that?
Ruth: Well, I’m not a mediator and I don’t set out to find irreconcilable situations. However, I’ve been working as a Time to Think consultant for the past eight years and the results have been very powerful. For example, when two work colleagues are in a stand-off, I have been asked to sit down with them. I do this by booking a three-hour session and spending at least forty minutes with both people individually. I ask them what their thoughts are about the situation. After twenty minutes or so of downloading, they always become calmer. It’s important to bear in mind that these are usually intelligent well-meaning people and they’ve just got themselves into a sticky place with their dislike for each other. I am not making any calls or judgements on what’s happened, I am just the generator of their thinking. If they ask me, ‘What do you think?’ I tell them it doesn’t really matter what I think, it’s about what more do you think?
Both then immediately come back to a joint session. I make sure the meeting takes place in a really nice environment, order more tea, get them comfortable. That’s important. We agree who goes first and I get the timer out. I explain they have three minutes each and must not under any circumstances interrupt each other. Then I ask the first speaker, ‘What do you need so-and-so to know?’ That’s how the process starts. After a few of these three-minutes exchanges, they do begin to listen because they start to see each other as human being with similar feelings. That’s when things break through and it always works. Of course, they are colleagues and they know they have to work together, so it’s not a like a fraught family situation for example. For me, it’s about helping people who already want to get somewhere to get further. I just want them to get on.
Sue: So, you are invited into organisations because the team isn’t working well for some reason, which could be around a listening or thinking issue?
Ruth: Yes, Time to Think has this beautiful process for working with groups. It’s as simple as getting people into pairs to listen to each other. This is not about remedial work; it’s building on what’s already there and people being willing to be honest.
Sue: How does the process unfold?
Ruth: The team leader will tell me what she or he thinks is the problem, but, of course, others might see it quite differently. So, I always start by finding out what everyone involved thinks about the issue. I suppose my biggest piece of work in this context was with a large customer data company who asked for help because they couldn’t get through a meeting without arguing. From my perspective they needed to get to know each other’s thinking better, to find more respect for each other’s thinking and to understand just how much they are blocking progress if they didn’t stop interrupting all the time.
Because they were all super bright, they realised this very quickly and after the first couple of pairs’ sessions the atmosphere changed so much. They fed back how extraordinary they found it, and how peaceful and different it felt afterwards. This is the result of what happens when you are not interrupting or being interrupted all the time.
Sue: Most of us have never been taught to listen like this. We have been taught to be competitive instead. I wonder if this is what drives our inability to listen. It’s this, ‘I have a better idea than you’ thought mode.
Ruth: Yes, I agree with you. One of the principles of Time to Think is about recognising that we do have this internal drive to compete, which is evolutionary. We actually want to ‘win the opinion’. And this will get in the way of every single conversation unless we acknowledge it, sit with it, and tell ourselves to shut up because we need to listen to what’s being said.
Our listening is improved enormously if we can achieve this, even some of the time, particularly in a group seeking to find an answer for something. To make this happen I set up a protocol: I place a clock in the centre of the table and each person has three minutes to speak. As soon as their time is up, we move onto the next person in the round. This is true equality in terms of boundaries, practice and time – another essential principle in Time to Think. For the period of time we are working together to fix something or create a strategy or whatever, we are equal as thinkers, regardless of anything else.
This is huge because it helps people to recognise, ‘I come with a brain and you come with a brain. And who’s to say your brain is better than mine?’ That is not possible. It’s just a different brain, that’s all. Therefore, we are all equal for the purposes of why we are around this table, and if a brain isn’t needed at the table, then let it go away! So, this can be tough.
Sue: I would call this tough love.
Ruth: Yes, it is tough love and it also very loving too. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana speaks of love ‘being the only emotion that expands our intelligence’. That is exactly what’s needed in the world now. By love, I don’t mean physical, sentimental, passionate or sexual love, I means the love that regards the person in front of you as legitimate.
Sue: I call this the difference between love spelt with small ‘l’ and with a capital L. The small ‘l’ love is full expectations, doubts and difficulties. But capital ‘L’ Love is beyond all that.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. That’s the Love Maturana means. It’s this honouring Love, which legitimises the other person. We are bedevilled by ‘othering’ in the world. Othering forces us to be opposite – it’s the other who is different to me, and I am afraid of this other. And, that’s what some global politicians are doing so well. They are deliberately fomenting otherness. It’s repellent. So, the work I am doing is helping people to see each other as equals. We can think together equally and share the time equally.
Sue: I think people are becoming increasingly sick of this othering because it’s not working. Due to the lockdown, I believe people are beginning to ask themselves serious questions such as, ‘who am I?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘How do I want to spend the rest of my life?’ How do you see this?
Ruth: Fundamentally, I do have great faith in the human capacity to improve. But I look around this country and of course, we are all living in our bubbles with all our biases in there with us -including me, and mine! It is pointless to try and pretend we’re not. I hear people say, ‘I’m not biased.’ Well, don’t be ridiculous. Of course we are. We are racist and sexist and classist and all the rest. Just name and know it, and then do something about it.
However, I also think some really serious people are actually seeing how this works more realistically and completely through, for example, Black Lives Matter and through the hardships that care workers and health workers may have suffered during this time. But attention spans are short; people move on so quickly. This needs traction. Recognising this suffering and difference properly needs to be baked into the economic, education and health systems, but I am afraid it’s not happening yet.
Sue: Do you feel there’s a difference in the generations you work with? Or have we all fundamentally forgotten right across the board how to communicate properly with each other?
Ruth: I wouldn’t like to say it’s a generational thing because I have had some extraordinary experiences with young people. I’d like to hope that anyone of any generation has the capacity to be a thinker and a listener. Once they start to do this, it can be powerfully transformative. However, even though I have done all this work with Nancy Kline, I am very aware of how easy it is to be ambushed by my own emotions so I recognise how difficult it can be to stay in a place of receptive listing. I believe one has to have enormous humility with this, recognise that we are never expert in it, there’s always room for more.
Nancy [Kline] says she’s good at noticing; noticing how people are thinking, noticing what they’re saying and noticing what they need in order to keep thinking. And, that’s it. We all need to develop this level of listening, and then we’ll be great thinkers.
Sue: Yes, we would! But I still think this competitive system we have created means it’s really hard to stop the performance and to admit when we don’t know something. I also wonder about the impact that a lack of boundaries has on us. For example, if we are brought up by people who never say ‘No’ to us, how do we find that buffer inside ourselves to know what we are thinking or how we are thinking it?
Ruth: Well, wise parents make sure they listen to their children, and boundaries have to be carefully explained. I was so impressed by my own four-year-old grandson who had to go back to school recently. He was obviously reluctant because he said to his mum, ‘I feel a bit sick, Mummy, but it’s because I’m sad in my tummy.’ Well, that’s exactly where we feel sadness – in our tummy, and she really heard him. This is where parents can help a child so much to understand their body, their feelings and their whole self. Isn’t that so much better than him having an hysterical tantrum at the door!
I think most parents could do this, but they need to be shown how. If they’re not in touch with their own feelings, they have to do a lot of work on themselves in order to make it safe for their child to be in touch with their own feelings. I think this is just endless deep work that we need to do, and, of course, none of this is prioritised – although I think there’s a lot of very intelligent teachers out there full of intention to make this work. Philippa Perry writes brilliantly about this. I find it very encouraging and it’s where I find hope.
Sue: So many of us are brought up by parents who tell us what we should think, and it takes us years to work out what we actually think for ourselves.
Ruth: That’s tough, because it shuts things down. Basically, it implicitly says what you are thinking isn’t right, so, you’re not right. Therefore, you’re a bad person and this very shaming. But that’s where people go.
I was involved with a very interesting experiment with Time to Think mediated by Nancy Kline, where we looked at the whole idea of polarisation. Two people were prepared to speak, one for Brexit and one against, and another two people spoke for and against abortion. It began with a brilliant question: ‘In the context of Brexit (or abortion) what matters to you most?’
Each person went through a few cycles of speaking for three minutes. There were about fifty people present and everyone was rapt because these two pairs were speaking so honestly. At the end Nancy simply asked for their freshest thinking now on Brexit or their freshest thinking now on abortion, and each person got a few minutes to answer this.
If I could paraphrase their responses, it was along the lines of: ‘I haven’t changed my mind but now I understand so much better why you think the way you do.’ You could feel the walls between the two speakers beginning to dissolve. It had been quite prickly in the beginning, so it was such a powerful lesson to me. All we need is the other person to be willing to listen.
Sue: I love the question, ‘what’s your freshest thinking now?’ We really invest in our thought schemas because we think that’s how the world should be. When someone challenges our schema, it can literally feel like they are threatening our life.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference between physical and emotional threat and threat is triggered within 0.7 of a second. People either go into flight, fight, freeze or appease. I only realised this appeasement reaction recently. Lots of people will automatically try and appease a fraught situation to make it better. But it’s particularly shaming when you’ve have tried to make it better but this is rejected by the other person, because you are also having to deal with the original rejection caused by the disagreement. That’s extremely hard.
Sue: I haven’t thought of appeasement in this context before.
Ruth: Yes, it changes things completely.
Sue: Why do you feel we are so terrified of stepping out of our schema? For instance, if we believe Toby over there in the corner is wrong, how do we step out of our schema of believing him to be wrong?
Ruth: This is where Humberto Maturana’s work comes in. It’s about realising Toby in the corner isn’t wrong. He’s just different. Nancy talks in her book Time to Think about one of the 10 Components being Difference, which used to be referred to as Diversity. We have started calling it Difference because that’s what it really is. To notice and know that no two people think the same. Therefore, everybody thinks differently. This is reality.
Therefore, when reality isn’t represented properly in a group or a team, or at company board level through Difference, we don’t have reality in the room and it’s hard to make decisions for the good of all. For instance, women represent 52% of the population and people from different BAME origins represent 14% of the UK population. So, both these should be appropriately represented at senior management levels in order to properly represent reality. It’s idiotic to consider women as a minority group!
You can see how far we are from that. As long as we continue to marginalise and compartmentalise, we will struggle with ‘othering’, and we will remain stuck in homogeneity, group think, entitlement and privilege.
Sue: This privileged, patriarchal conditioning is huge to break down. But, regarding women’s equality, as I see it, women who do step up seem to adopt the role of male aggressor in order to survive or make their mark. I couldn’t possibly survive in an environment like that. I think a lot of women feel like this; it’s not for them.
Ruth: Actually, I do see a great deal of work and change going on around this. But my fear is that Covid has done immense damage to working women, because as soon as childcare disappeared the women got hammered. On the other hand – and there is good evidence for this – employers have had to realise that these young mothers, who they are calling on do extraordinary levels of work, often live in small flats without a room they can be quiet in. A lot of bosses have also struggled to manage work and children. So, this has some potential to have an equalising effect, but only if acknowledged honestly and given proper attention.
Sue: I also think it’s been particularly difficult because many women (and men) love going to work to escape from home and whatever this entails.
Ruth: Yes, and that’s been really hard for them to lose that. A young mother I worked with told me how much she missed the commute to work because it was her buffer zone to get her head into work mode. The burn out level for young mums over these months has been immense. They are exhausted. Research is showing the although their partners do more to help, they aren’t doing anything like as much as is needed to get the mother into a place of having enough time to be a professional. There’s also over 600,000 people unemployed due to Covid, and I wondered just how many of them are women.
Sue: Well, this could be a massive opportunity for us all to stop constantly criticising and judging and to start listening to what’s really going on by constructively identify things which aren’t working and those that are.
Ruth: I couldn’t agree more. This is the longest pause we’re ever likely to have as a society, and we’re not out of it yet. Our society needs to learn to listen in order to improve, and people do seem to love this work. I have never been busier, even though I now have to run Time to Think courses on zoom. I can only do as much as I can – I can’t change the whole world. Yet I feel this work ripples out and everyone who takes part in a programme or workshop goes away listening differently. It’s a subtle process rather than a short and sharp impact.
Sue: I think most people talk at each other. They are too afraid to listen in case they hear something they don’t want to.
Ruth: I regard it as being in broadcast mode – that’s the mode most people are in. This is how you win – or think you win. But if everyone is broadcasting nothing integrates. Nothing changes. Nothing is actually becoming something else. And, that’s tragic because it’s such a waste of time.
Sue: I find it exhausting to be with people who are constantly broadcasting!
Ruth: Yes, we really need to learn to stop broadcasting and start listening and receiving. When we do, there are enormous rewards, and everything can change. You can feel your heart opening and letting in something new. I am working with two amazing men both of whom have held very senior corporate managerial positions, and both give me such heart because they are now in a place of receiving. It’s one of the women who is struggling the most because of her need for control. I’ve had to give her some really tough feedback about this.
Sue: How do you give feedback?
Ruth: Actually, I would love to give feedback lessons! However, people would have to do quite a lot of work with me first because they would need to stop broadcasting. Only when they start listening can they begin to understand the gifts that feedback gives them. I am very interested in the work of John and Julie Gottman who teach appreciation skills. They have been doing this for over forty years and they have a 96% success rate in predicting whether or not a young couple’s relationship will survive. It’s based on appreciation and noticing each other’s better side, rather than niggling about what they don’t like.
The ratio to giving feedback is 5 to 1: five pieces of relatively positive feedback to one critiquing. These five positive and succinct appreciations have to be sincere and truly meant, so this can’t really be a tool. This has to be somebody with enough intelligence to notice what is going well followed by critiquing, offered from a place of best possibility rather than negative impact. This means avoiding the word ‘But’, because after hearing ‘but’ every single thing that came before the ‘but’ has gone. It’s like a little bomb going off in our brain. So, this feedback stems from asking the question, ‘What might you have done better?’
With this woman I am working with, I noted she had done a fabulous piece of work although I felt her pace of speech had left her audience confused at some points. After offering four or five positive points I invited her to consider this confusion, and said to her, ‘I wonder if this is something that happens quite often for you.’ She sat back in her chair and said, ‘That is so useful. Thank you.’ I was really pleased with her response, because I knew the quality of her thinking would improve.
Sue: What would you like to say to anyone who is interested in the work you are doing with Time to Think?
Ruth: It’s about a call to action! Even if you think you are a wonderful listener – and you may be – how about when somebody next wants you to listen to them, saying to them, ‘I will ask you what you want to think about and then I will listen to you for five minutes without interruption, because I want you to keep thinking.’
Then yourself open up to the experiment of deep listening and see what you discover!