How to be a Better Thought Partner

How to be a Better Thought Partner

* This is a special newsletter.  It was co-written with one of my clients.  A few weeks ago, I got off a Zoom with Matt (of course, not his real name), and wrote this piece as a follow-up to our conversation highlighting what I heard and what I didn’t say to him.  Later that day, I handed it off to him asking for his input.  Hmmm…just now seeing how meta this is – working with a thought partner to write about thought partnership.  Anyways, here is our co-creation.   (Thanks ‘Matt’ – you inspire me with your curiosity, awareness and commitment to becoming a better human being.)

We had about 15 minutes left in our coaching session.  We had gone deep as we often do – starting with a question about crafting his career path and diving into what mattered most to him.  As time was dwindling, Matt asked if we could change directions to something more tactical. 

He told me that a colleague, someone senior within the organization, opened up to him about a political dynamic that was bothering her.  Matt was happily surprised that she trusted him enough to share what was going on – he didn’t know her well and wanted to build the relationship. 

Matt didn’t feel great about how he handled the conversation.  He cringed as he talked about how much he gave advice that he wasn’t sure she really needed.  He jokingly said that he could hear his wife’s voice in his head saying, “I don’t need solutions.  I just need you to listen.”  Matt wishes he had a do-over, but isn’t quite sure what he would do differently.

Our conversation made me think about what most of us really want in all of our relationships.

We want someone to walk beside us. 

Sure, sometimes we want advice, direction and to be told what to do or think.  But most of the time, we want someone who can spark our best thinking. 

It’s what we talk about when we talk about those brainstorming sessions or times when a team’s sum is greater than its parts. 

We want a thought partner.    

It is one the most compelling leadership quality there is.  Here are a few ways that you can become the person people go to who “makes them think”:

1. Get out of your own way.  Most of us want so badly to be of service.  We want so badly to say something smart, useful or insightful that we retreat into our own thoughts rather than staying present to the other person.

“We want so badly to say something smart, useful or insightful that we retreat into our own thoughts rather than staying present to the other person.”


How do you do that?  I like to start with a mental image used in the book, Crucial Conversations.  Imagine a face-to-face meeting with someone about a challenging situation.  Most of us think about sitting across a table or a desk.  Instead, imagine that that you are both sitting on the same side of the table looking at the issue together.  When I am able to do this, I see us sitting shoulder-to-shoulder exploring the unknown together.  The burden of insight doesn’t fall on me and it doesn’t fall on them.  It’s a mutual exploration. 

2. Listen.  Being fully present for another person feels like a radical act of kindness these days.  Amidst all of the chaos in our world, it is becoming more and more rare to find someone who is a good listener.  I am blessed to have many friends who are amazing listeners.  With them, time slows down and expands all at once.  I relax because I don’t feel rushed.  I become more clear, not just in the moment, but days later.  Do you subconsciously believe that listening is less valuable than speaking?  It might be time to challenge that belief by bringing to mind someone in your life who is a good listener.  How do you feel in their presence?

“Do you subconsciously believe that listening is less valuable than speaking?”


3. Learn. When you reflect on what you are hearing, consider the ways that you might be directly or indirectly affecting the circumstances, positively or negatively. What impact does your role in the broader ecosystem contribute to this outcome? What system or habit might you alter to potentially change the result?

4. Ask the other person what they need from you, if anything.  Do they want advice or ideas?  Do they want space to process?  Do they want your assessment of the situation?  When we know what the other person wants, it helps to focus us by taking the pressure off. 

Here’s to building more satisfying conversations and relationships,


Starla Sireno is recognized as one of the top executive coaches in NYC. Starla is in the business of transforming executives into better leaders and better humans. Inquire how to work with Starla or her team.

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