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Sophie Stephenson Is Teaching Attention
...and being a good listener.
Hello! This is the midweek edition of Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, wonder, and discovering what you never knew you didn’t know.
If all of that sounds like…a lot, please start here.
I don’t really understand how the internet works (I think it’s powered by shouting?) but I do know that if you click the button below, it will send further editions of this newsletter into your email Inbox where you can calmly procrastinate about reading them at your leisure:
Today, it is my pleasure to share a conversation with someone who recently made me alarmingly aware of how noisy and obnoxious I can be in person.
I first heard of Sophie Stephenson’s work when she was featured in an episode of the podcast Living Adventurously, featuring adventurer Al Humphreys cycling around Yorkshire talking to interesting people. I really liked what she had to say about the need to give ourselves time to think - so I signed up to her email list.
Skip forward a year into the first months of the pandemic. Sophie sends out an email - she’s holding a series of free online gatherings, a chance to meet a few strangers, share a few thoughts, invite a little serendipity back into our increasingly socially regimented existence. I quickly sign up for one.
Since lockdowns began, have you been on any casual Zoom calls with multiple attendees? How did they go? Of the handful I’ve done, most quickly devolved into the equivalent of a heated debate in the House of Commons, or perhaps a field of angry sheep - where your only hope of being heard is raising your voice to a volume that drowns out everyone else’s.
Sometimes that’s fun, and gets your blood pumping in a thrilling way (see: pub nights when the football’s on). But other times - say, in the middle of a pandemic - it’s the last thing your already-frazzled brain needs.
It quickly becomes clear that Sophie’s virtual get-together is nothing like that. Not only does she have a really effective system for giving everyone the space to think and speak, she also listens. Really, really listens.
You can tell someone is a good listener, because you feel it. You relax. Your guard comes down. You reach for deeper thoughts, find the courage to articulate more difficult things, and find yourself speaking in that other voice, not the one you use to defend yourself against a fickle, uncaring world, but the one that speaks inside your head and your heart, the one that’s brave enough to blurt out what you really think.
Unfortunately for me, my “other voice” is frequently an excitable gabbler. And when it was my turn to speak to the group, I was feeling so engaged and relaxed that I started gabbling. And then I suddenly became aware of it - and brought my outward facing voice back in to do some damage control in the form of self-mocking humour (my usual defensive shtick when I’m feeling a bit socially awkward).
All this was delightful.
Well, okay, not exactly at the time, perhaps - but it was a revelation to me. I later thought back over that whole group conversation. How much time had I spent giving my full attention to everyone else, instead of thinking about what I was going to say next and how I was going to say it? Where exactly was my attention before I spoke? Answer: on myself. Where was it while I was speaking? On myself.
Since then I’ve had over a hundred virtual calls (some with total strangers, thanks to things like this) and I’ve been trying to devote more and more of my attention to the person I’m allegedly there to listen to. It’s…not always easy for an excitable gabbler like me. But I don’t think this newsletter would exist without it.
Correctly-applied curiosity is like a form of meditation that points outwards, treating the world around you as something far more interesting and insightful than anything you could have found solely within the Spaghetti Junction of your own thoughts. This means that paying attention properly is the super-skill that powers a truly curious life - and it has absolutely everything to teach you.
So, I believe, does Sophie Stephenson. So it was an honour to virtually sit down with her earlier this week and talk about her work.
(This interview was edited for clarity.)
Mike: I'd like to start with the Thinking Environment™ that you teach. One of its components is attention - and I've been looking at attention on the curiosity side of things. I've been reading Rapt by Winifred Gallagher - she's a journalist that took a deep dive into attention as a tool for more focused ways of living. And you describe attention as an “act of creation”. Can you explain that a bit for me?
Sophie: Everything we do in a Thinking Environment is really around helping people to think for themselves. So the underlying premise is that our quality of life - all the actions, our relationships, our health, our well being, all of that - depends on the quality of the thinking. And what we found is one of the things people really need, or benefit from, is attention, and so we define attention as listening with palpable interest, and without interruption. If you think about a normal conversation, you would have two or more people exchanging ideas, going back and forwards in either a polite way - someone takes turns, or you speak when I say so. Except most of the time, it's filled with interruption, people trying to confirm or clarify or get their point across - but there's not much attention.
And what we know is when you can get this sustained palpable interest in somebody else, and not only not interrupt their words or their stream of thoughts (because often we don't say all of the things that we're thinking), if you can sustain that interest through the pauses as well, it’s powerful. Because the pauses are - there's almost like a wave of thinking, and then there's a pause, the moment we are generating and creating and making connections in order to keep thinking. But most people think the pause is where they can interrupt.
Mike: Yeah, and it's usually where we’re waiting - having already thought of what we’re going to say next, while the other person is talking. I hate that in myself. So awful.
Sophie: I think people often think of listening as passive, not “doing”. But you're actually doing quite a lot in terms of maintaining interest. And it’s that sustained interest which allows somebody to create new thoughts, new connections, new ways of thinking about things, otherwise we're just replaying what we already know.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Is that part of the teaching that you do - making people aware of the ways that we distract ourselves when we should be listening?
Sophie: I think it becomes really obvious, really quickly, where people sit with their listening, and I think there are different ways we listen in different contexts, and it's always that point at which we realise it's starting to impact us or impact the people around us. When people start getting curious about it, it's like, “well what am I missing here?” You get that sense of what you were saying - “I don't like it when I do that”, and you almost get this inconsistency that doesn't align with how you want to be...and yet you can't help myself. Not interrupting is hard, unless you've had it modelled for you. We live in a world that interrupts, and our minds are so used to being distracted that actually paying sustained attention to anything requires practice. People think that listening is a trait - so they think you're either a good listener or you're not. And it's not. It's a skill.
Mike: You said in the podcast you did with Al Humphreys (my favourite episode of that season) - you mentioned you used to not be a very good listener? So, was it curiosity about yourself that led you into this career, where you realised you could help lots of other people with it as well?
Sophie: We teach what we most need to learn! I wanted to improve my listening, and I found a random reference to the Thinking Environment in another book called Fat, 40 And Fired - and the author said if you do nothing else after reading this, get a copy of Nancy Kline’s Time To Think. And what's interesting is - in a Thinking Environment, we don't really focus on listening. Listening is a byproduct. So when you pay attention, you end up becoming a good listener. I knew I wanted to be a good listener - it became apparent in my role that it was limiting me and limiting the people around me that I wasn't listening to. And yet now I very rarely think about listening. I think more about paying attention. Where's my attention right now? And because of that, I end up not interrupting, which makes me a better listener,
Mike: So it's a virtuous side-effect. That’s really interesting. I’ve found that a lot of becoming more curious seems to be about slowing down and giving yourself the space to be able to pay attention. Do you think with social media - say, Twitter often seems like the opposite of that? Where it forces you to form an opinion quickly? Do you find that social media can push in the wrong direction here?
Sophie: I think social media is a tool, and then there’s how you use that tool. It doesn't need to be a problem. But if you don't think about how you want to use that tool - it’s got inbuilt distraction and addiction. So unless you're really consciously choosing how you use it, it will create a sense of urgency around itself. And what we know about thinking is, we don't do our best thinking when we're rushed, when we're stressed. You might give your first thought to something, but it isn't necessarily your best thought. You need to pause and create some space so you can really think, do I want to respond to this? What do I want to say? Is this useful, is this nourishing, is it aligned with my values, is it actually important?
With a lot of the work I do, the first step is encouraging people to find some ease. I think Oliver Burkeman called it, “we're in an epidemic of busyness” and we wear our busyness like a badge of honour. And yet - are we doing the right things, that bring most meaning to our lives and the people around us?
So with social media, unless you have really thought about how you want to use it, how you want to engage, who the people are you're hoping to support - well, it can have a different agenda than you do. And it's easy to be busy. Actually stopping, creating some ease and some space, and some time to think and work things out, and consciously choose how we respond - that’s the real work. But I don't think it's the tool that's the problem.
Mike: Do you feel over the last year, like there's been a shift towards people giving themselves the time to reassess in that way?
Sophie: I guess I can only talk from my experience. For some people, their basic needs haven't been met, in which case it's really hard to think about anything but that. But I think what this has done is force almost everyone to stop. And that potentially creates a little bit more time to think. For some people, they'll just feel that without new distractions, it's quite scary, you know? You stop, then you're confronted with realising you’re maybe not happy with your work or your life or your relationship - but then we just get busy again somehow. Yet I think what the last year has done is amplify trends that were already there. There was already a shift away from this relentlessness of frantic busyness - people were already starting to question that. So maybe it amplified that and created more spaces where people can connect with other people who are also feeling that. But I think it had already begun.
Mike: So if we make a ‘new normal’, it’s going to be - not just a reaction to the last year? I’ve heard conversations around an opportunity for change, I don't want to go back to that again. Like, Over the last year I've realised this, and I’ve realised I want to have some kind of change here.
Sophie: I also think it has overtly challenged assumptions that are normally unconscious. Things that were unquestioned unconsciously, and previously taken as absolutes, but now thrown out. And if we don't assume we understand those things, what else do we not assume we understand? Yeah - maybe just really starting to question some of the assumptions we make about work and life and where we should focus ourselves. Absolutely.
Mike: I realised that I had an assumption with a question I asked you by email in advance of this. As a bloke who grew up having conversations with his friends that were usually competitive and sometimes confrontational and very argumentative, I thought this was a male trait, to argue without listening better. But in the interview you did with Alastair, you said you haven't noticed a gender difference in the work that you do. So now I’m wondering - was this just trait within myself, rather than men in general? If so - for someone like me, how would I start to get out of the habit of seeing conversations as things that I should always try to win?
Sophie: I suppose my first thought is: how's that going for you?
Sophie: I think the first thing is we have to decide it’s important to improve that. I often think in a conversation, my starting point is what I can learn. And the only way I can invite that in is by creating space for somebody else to really share what they think. *holds up a glass of water* Let's say we're talking, and actually what I most want to share with you is down at the bottom of this glass. But every time you interrupt, ask me a question, confirm or clarify something or you empathise by sharing something with me, you effectively top up that glass of water. And so what you're missing is the opportunity to find out, truly deeply, who I am and what's important. I think we just miss the opportunities to really learn about someone else, and learn what's really important to them.
But what I also think we miss is the opportunity to change our minds. Because when you listen really deeply to somebody else, their thoughts act as a generator of yours - as long as you're willing. And so I think there's something beautiful about when you're actually in proper dialogue with somebody, you both end up thinking differently than you did at the beginning, rather than it just being well I'm going to tell you what I think. We have to earn the right to hear somebody else's story, and listening is one really really good way of doing that, because otherwise we're only ever, you know, reading the cover of the book.
And part of it is about being at ease in ourselves. What is it that's so urgent in us that we need to shout about it at the expense of listening? Am I speaking because I want to feel like I'm clever, or I want to impress someone - because actually, the paradox there is, they're probably not listening to you. You just shouted them down, or you just interrupted them, so they're having a stress response that stops them listening. So what was the point of all this?
You know, one of one of the beautiful things Nancy Kline says is - how do I know that what I'm about to say is more important than what you're about to think?
Mike: Wow. Yes.
Sophie: So in simple terms - if you only did one thing, I would try as best you can to not interrupt someone, if you can. And you know, it will feel odd to begin with. But actually the more you do it, the more you get comfortable not interrupting, and it pays off really quickly. The other thing is: can we also listen to ourselves? How do you listen to yourself? We have all these thoughts going around, and most of us just distract ourselves from all of that, because it's noisy and messy and confused and full of emotion. But can we allow ourselves just to sit with it? And really pay attention to ourselves?
Mike: Like the study of undergraduate students that preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting with their own thoughts...
Sophie: Yes! And we see that all the time, it's part of this restlessness we have, with who we are and what we’re so busy doing. A realisation that working this way hasn't been feeling good, or there's a problem with something that feels a bit scary, so I'll just get busy. It's kind of deep work. Deep work is the thing that we don't want to sit with. But as Cal Newport has said, sustained attention is one of the most important things in life. And if we're if we're losing that ability to not interrupt ourselves, how can we give that to our work?
Mike: So true. Do you find that when you're teaching people to really give their thoughts time to brew, they come back later to tell you about a richer experience they’re now having with a broadening and deepening of that experience of thinking?
Sophie: One of the paradoxes of working in a Thinking Environment is people don't need that much uninterrupted time. Just minutes, sometimes, to tackle something that has felt like a mountain. They make these connections so quickly. We don't need a huge amount of time. It's just we don't get any. When I start my courses, we do an exercise where we have two minutes of uninterrupted time each - and then over the course, that might go to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, all the way up to 40 minutes. And just the first 2 minutes can feel excruciating. But so quickly, it feels very very natural. There's an ease to it. It's so easy to think for ourselves when the conditions are right. So when other people are interested, when they are valuing our time with their attention, when we're treated as an equal, it's like all of those things that we need are finally present - and it's really quite simple.
Mike: So why do we complicate all this? I wrote just last week about the difference between simplicity and sophistication, which really just means a high level of complexity, but it seems modern society so often equates “sophisticated” with “good”. Emotionally too, like sending an email that you've been putting off for ages, but the actual action of it is a 2-minute job. Why do we make things so complicated? That's a big question, sorry!
Sophie: A lot of that in my work would be down to not having an opportunity to think about it first. Often there will be assumptions that we make about ourselves or about others, and that stops doing us what we want, so we will have an assumption that it won't be received well. Or that I'll get it wrong, or I'm not good enough. There's lots of these assumptions that we have. And if there is an assumption there, which is both untrue and limiting, you won't take the action, or you won't do the thing. By its nature, an assumption is something we take argely without evidence, largely unexamined, but which drives our behaviour. So you see I'm not writing this email and that’s awful, but that's driven by an assumption - so unless you do the work to replace that assumption about your behaviour, you're sort of relying on willpower to get it done. That's very tricky to sustain.
Mike: I love that. So - I know you're starting a series of free online masterclasses starting at the end of this month. They seem to be a great way to be introduced to everything you teach. Could you tell me a bit more about that, and what someone could expect, coming into it?
Sophie: I’m so excited to do these! So - the Thinking Environment is a set of 10 components. Attention is one of them, Ease is another, Encouragement, Difference - and so on. These are the conditions we know that really support people to think well so they can thrive and flourish.
And so what I'm going to do is, once a month, I'm going to take one of the components, and really introduce it properly to people that know nothing about it - but also there'll be people on the calls that have done lots of work who will be back to refresh, so I’ll share some of my latest thinking on that. But also, it’s to create a space where people can think for themselves so, what would this would look like in my life or work, how could I start bringing it more in, presented hopefully as some new information or a fresh way of thinking about something.
I really want people to leave having learned something they can do differently. It's meant to be an introduction to people that don't know about the Thinking Environment - but given purely from a place of generosity, like, I love this stuff. I love sharing it. Anyone can come along to everything, or pick the component that they think they most need so there's no requirement to come to all of them. I hope it’ll be useful!
Mike: Fantastic. I love what you do, and I love your enthusiasm for it. Thank you so much!
Sophie: My pleasure! But there was one thing I was going to ask you - and it was about curiosity.
Mike: Fire away.
Sophie: When I look at curiosity, and look at the definitions (I like my definitions) - curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something. And I'm wondering if, when we're listening to somebody, I wonder if curiosity isn't helpful?
Sophie: My thinking is, curiosity has to come from a place inside us, that I'm curious, I want to know, I want to learn. And so it puts the focus on me. Whereas for me when I think about being interested - that's all about the other person. It's a very similar definition, isn't it? Still wanting to know or learn about someone or something - but maybe one that feels like there's a different energy there?
Mike: Hmm. Yeah, I think - if you go into a conversation with somebody and you have a pre prepared question in your head already, at some level, for you, the whole point of the conversation is to have that question answered. Like, I am listening to you but also you are serving my question. But I guess what it really should be is...a mixture of things. Helping with my question, yes,but hopefully, I'm going to end up with new questions I'd never considered before. And hopefully a set of assumptions that have been thoroughly challenged - or destroyed. Like, Oh, wow. I'm not just wrong, I'm completely wrong. I would hope that is what good curiosity looks like in practice - that mixture of the selfish, I want to close my own information gap, but also the open and aware, I want to learn the limits of my own ignorance, that proof of how little I know about the world. And the awareness that in the back of my mind, there’s this script I’ve made for applying curiosity. And that sometimes I need to turn that script off completely and just listen. And...you’ve just clarified all that for me, which is a perfect example. So thank you!
Sophie: It’s been a pleasure.
Sign up to Sophie’s free masterclasses here.