In a speech at a large HR conference, Phil LeNir, president of CoachingOurselves, made a rather surprising claim: he said that we don't learn by listening. Now the obvious response is, "Well, of course! Everyone knows we really learn by doing." But LeNir had a different take: his view is that we learn by talking.
Two clues in talking and coaching
There are a few clues that this idea might be worth taking seriously. The first clue is how eager people are to talk in meetings, such as when a team is exploring ideas. Before, I would have speculated that people talked because they wanted the attention. Now, I see there's another angle. People talk because it's how they form their ideas. It's not a case of having an idea which is then expressed; rather they have a tiny seed of an idea in their head-a starting point-and they need to talk it out to create the full-blown idea.
E.M. Forster is credited with saying "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" That line can elicit a laugh, but it is supported by some of the latest neuroscience. In "The Mind is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain," Nick Chater makes the case that there is not a "deep mind" mulling over and holding an idea; it's more a matter that we improvise as we go. We need to talk to think - or at least, it certainly helps.
The second clue is from traditional coaching. Good coaches listen much more than they talk. The coach is not there to learn, the manager is-and that's why the manager is the one doing the talking.
It's important to note here that LeNir was talking about a specific type of learning: leadership development. With seasoned leaders, learning is often about making sense of their own experiences. They have no shortage of "input" in their daily lives - they don't necessarily need to do a lot of listening to get even more input. What they need is to learn by reflecting on and making sense of their experiences; seasoned leaders do this by talking.
Recommendations for practice
This leads us to some recommendations for practice. As you design learning programs, seek to have as much time as possible for people to speak. The best way to accomplish this is to include a lot of small group discussions. As a presenter, this can be very uncomfortable because you give up time for the content you'd like to talk about; furthermore, you don't know what the small groups are talking about which leads to a feeling of not being in control. We need to overcome this discomfort because participants are going to learn more from talking about the topic than listening to the presenter talk about it - at least, that's the case for leadership development subjects.
One variation I learned on this from a Japanese consultancy called J-Feel is that a nice complement to speaking is writing. If people get a chance to write down their reflections, then that serves much the same purpose as speaking. If you do this before a small group discussion, it gives the introverted people a chance to learn by writing-before the extroverts take over the conversation.
Learning requires a mix of both presented content and reflective conversation. Right now we lean far too heavily on the idea that people learn by listening. We need to recognize that people learn by talking, and build that into our development programs.