Detail of Portrait of René Descartes (1596 – 1650), Louvre
Is it possible to facilitate the thoughts of another? Can we help by creating a thinking space for someone else that is safe, secure and nourishing? The notion that many of the solutions to our problems might be locked within our own heads tempts us to pursue these goals. By encouraging another person to explore their own thoughts more thoroughly and more effectively than they might on their own, we can perhaps help them towards relevant answers.
I recently spent a weekend in one of the most beautiful and life-enhancing places on the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland exploring these very questions. Working with a group of education and training consultants I was permitted to sample and help develop creative and appreciative thinking spaces.
According to Descartes, thought defines our very existence. ‘I think, therefore I am’, he wrote. Even if we find that hard to accept we would probably agree that our ability to think is certainly the most significant hallmark of our humanity; we are after all Homo sapiens—thinking man. We think everyday, whether we recognise this or not, and the clarity of our thought as well as its scale undoubtedly determines our destiny.
That our thinking might be improved and expanded by facilitation is hugely attractive. Who would not want to think better? Thinking better translates as doing better and is a laudable aim for an individual, a group or an organisation. But, what do we mean by facilitation?
We certainly cannot do someone else’s thinking for them, but perhaps we can create the right conditions conducive to better thought. These conditions might include attention, appreciation, the right questions and silence. We can think in silence, inside our heads, but perhaps our most effective thinking is done through speech. Simply being asked what you think by someone you trust who gives you their undivided attention, who does not interrupt you and gently, when necessary, offers subtle prompts encouraging you to go deeper, can result in thoughts and recombinations of ideas that might never have occurred on their own. Your partner in thinking may be merely a catalyst in the process. You are doing the thinking, encouraged by a simple, but unusual, set of circumstances created by your partner. Your partner is the custodian of the thinking space and is simultaneously irrelevant and essential to the process.
Does it work? If we have good friends who allow us the space to speak our minds, without interruption and without fear of ridicule or censure then we already know that it works. Many individuals, however, have no experience of this and especially in the workplace have little opportunity to allow their voice to develop their thinking.
If we believe that we all have capacities to think that are untapped, and that if unleashed these may help us resolve complex problems, then it all begins to be exciting. Being allowed to explore the possibilities of our own minds in a thinking space becomes a golden opportunity for development. We may grow through our thoughts when we are allowed to really think.
What I am describing is achieved through speech. We are asked to articulate our thoughts with our voice and to share them with our thinking partner in spoken words. Interestingly, by speaking aloud we also share our thoughts for the first time with ourselves. Saying it out loud we hear ourselves thinking new thoughts that were, until the moment of speech, unrevealed. Could this moment of self-discovery be achieved by other means? What about writing, rather than speaking, as a way towards clearer thinking? Or painting, or making music, or gardening, or running? Possibly, but thoughts, at least for most of us, are words and our most immediate words are those we speak. So, perhaps, encouraging speech may be the best, or at least the simplest, way to join up our thoughts into new ideas.
As I shared my spoken thoughts with my thinking partner, I found myself going in directions I had not planned. I developed ideas. I made new connections. I discovered something new. And, what was new had been within me, for during this all that my partner had contributed was her attention, and her silence.
The discovery of the self and the act of intellectual creation are much discussed in the literature. Words such as ‘mystery’ and ‘inaccessibility’ and ‘depth’ abound, but my experiences this weekend have made me realise that there is more inside my head that I had previously thought. Going a little deeper into my thoughts and being encouraged to speak in a carefully created space, furnished with another person who not only hears but listens, allowed me the surprise of discovery. Descartes was not wrong: I most certainly am because I think, but I had not previously understood the importance of my voice in all this. Now I understood that I speak, and therefore I think.
© Allan Gaw 2013
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