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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Scott


Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Listen: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations, by Dr Kathryn Mannix

At first glance you may overlook the relevance and value of seeing a supervision conversation through the eyes of Kathryn Mannix, a clinician whose primary focus is palliative care. But what a revelation awaits.

Dr Mannix’s first book was With the End in Mind, in which she made the case for the importance of conversations about death and dying, drawing on her many years in palliative care. It is excellent, though not directly related to Coaching Supervision, so I haven’t previously mentioned it in this blog. However, it is the reason I was so keen to read her new book, Listen. And of course, listening is at the heart of what we do as coaches and as supervisors.

The subtitle of the book is: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations, and that is very deliberate. Mannix wants us to move away from thinking about ‘difficult conversations’ or even ‘challenging conversations’ as advocated by some. Rather, she makes the point that when people are hurting, they are tender, and our engagement with them also needs to be tender. It is significant, and indicative of her approach, that one chapter is called ‘On Tenderness’ and explores these ideas. ‘When we engage in tender conversations with somebody,’ she writes, ‘we create a safe place for them to suffer: we don’t cause their suffering, but we can accompany and support them in it.’

When one considers the restorative aspect of supervision, (that is helping coaches to deal with the emotional load that their practice sometimes leaves them carrying); and also how we as supervisors support and develop coaches working with clients who may be in serious distress, this is clearly an important frame we can adopt.

As with her previous book, Mannix reflects on her extensive career as a doctor, trained in CBT, and as an educator. The content draws largely on her experience, and the way she communicates it in this book demonstrates her excellence as an educator.

In terms of the content, Mannix gives us a series of pointers on how to conduct the various stages of tender conversations (such as getting started, getting alongside our client, finishing safely etc) all supported by anecdotes from her own practice which clearly illustrate the points.

She then looks in more depth at conversations that help people to make changes; and at conversations in particularly tender contexts, such as anger, and grief; and, of course, last conversations.

I found the chapter on talking with the bereaved particularly valuable. Like many people, I suspect, I recognise the importance of not avoiding bereaved people, but I have to work to overcome my own feeling of inadequacy to engage with them. Having some clear guidelines, drawn from bereaved people’s requests, has proved invaluable.

It is the structure of the book, and of each chapter within it, that most clearly demonstrate her skills as an educator. She explains clearly and simply what the key point is that she wishes to make, and then uses illustrative anecdotes to expand on the point, and further commentary to pick up the subtleties. All the way through, the reader feels in the company of a skilled compassionate and wise guide, who points out the features of this work, and encourages the reader to engage and think about them.

It is interesting to compare her book with Nancy Kline’s work on listening, in Time to Think and its sequels. Clearly there is much that is consonant; and there are areas that each explores that the other doesn’t. But intriguingly, there are also clear differences: even contradictions. Fans of Kline’s approach will know that her cardinal rule is don’t interrupt! Don’t even interrupt someone’s silence, if he or she is still thinking. However, Mannix (who also values silence) writes; ‘Remain aware, though, that an expectant silence can seem threatening to someone who does not feel ready to explore their uncomfortable thoughts… Punctuate the silence, without puncturing it, by using short expressions of encouragement: ‘It’s OK, I’m here.’ ‘Take your time.’ ‘There’s a lot to think about.’

Likewise, in Kline’s world, the listener’s understanding is not important: as long as the thinker is thinking, that is what matters. But in Mannix’s world ‘Making sure that we understand the story properly is important.’ I think that these differences (and there are others) stem from the different contexts in which both are working. Nancy Kline’s sole purpose in creating a Thinking Environment is to help people to think at their very best, as themselves and for themselves. Kathryn Mannix, however, is seeking to help people on a definite journey, typically in a time of profound distress.

It is valuable for us as coaches and supervisors to reflect on precisely what we are seeking to do (and contracted to do) to be clear when each of these approaches may be more suitable.

This is an outstandingly good book, firstly for professional use: her case study of a family who think hospital staff have killed a loved one by neglect or negligence and are covering it up, is extremely powerful and helpful for anyone working with someone who is profoundly angry. But it also applies to the rest of our life, too: tender conversations are clearly essential in families and with friends, alike.

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