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  • Writer's pictureJess Annison

What's your ideal thinking environment?

Thinking. We all do it, much of the time. We think on our feet; we over-think; we think again; we think big; we think twice.

But just how much thought do we give as to how to do our best thinking? And as leaders of teams and organisations, how much thought do we give to helping our people do their best thinking?

The perfect conditions for thinking are the key focus of Nancy Kline’s seminal book “Time to Think”. Released in 2002 (but based on her work from the previous two decades), I was late to the party – but it’s become one of the books I recommend most often to others (in any context – work, relationships, family), and an important cornerstone of my coaching work with clients.

The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.

Nancy Kline describes the ten components of a thinking environment as:

  1. Attention

  2. Incisive Questions

  3. Equality

  4. Appreciation

  5. Ease

  6. Encouragement

  7. Feelings

  8. Information

  9. Place

  10. Diversity

Each condition is summarised below, with a short summary of what it means to me in terms of my coaching work.

1) Attention

First up, attention – described by Kline as “listening with respect, interest and fascination”. At first, I thought this was simply a hygiene factor: it’s annoying when someone isn’t paying you attention when you’re trying to talk to them, right? Fiddling with their phone, or (in these Zoom/Teams-heavy times) their eyes darting around as they switch between windows. But what she means goes much deeper than this: not just ‘not interrupting’, not just ‘engaged body language and eye contact’, not just ‘not jumping in to advise or suggest’, and not just ‘getting comfortable with silence’.

It’s all of these, for a sustained period of time - and on repeat. And the results are tremendous: “When you are listening to someone, much of the quality of what you are hearing is your effect on them. Giving good attention to people makes them more intelligent. Poor attention makes them stumble over their words and seem stupid.” Wow! And how true it is: thinking back on my own experiences - when I’ve been truly paid attention by someone, and when I haven’t.

When I’m coaching, I’m careful to really listen and pay attention (note to self: never coach on an empty stomach), and if my attention wanders in the slightest I now notice and bring it back as quickly as I can. Because as Kline describes, to do otherwise is to reduce the capability of my client - that’s how important it is.

“Most people think they listen well, but they rarely do - not at this level. Listening this way is a radical act.”

2) Incisive Questions

Kline defines incisive questions as “any question that removes limiting assumptions from your thinking so that you can think again”.

Her technique for crafting incisive questions felt a bit clunky to me on first reading… (please bear with me, Nancy fans – I’m absolutely a convert now!). Essentially, she argues that the question should identify the limiting assumption correctly (which is a skill in itself and requires great attention), and replace it with the appropriate freeing assumption. And as part of the same question, direct this back to the coachee’s goal or challenge so that they can benefit from their freed-up thinking. Still following me?! It seems complicated at first but having experienced it as both a coachee and as a coach, I know it is so powerful – and therefore well worth the practice.

One of the (many) things I love about this book is that Kline gives real examples and case-studies, plus sample questions. Plus, she gives a great tip that’s really helped me deconstruct this technique, by asking “What are you assuming here that is stopping you?” I use this question to myself regularly (let’s be honest, probably daily!). It really helps me to focus on the assumptions I’m making, and whether those assumptions are holding me back, or helping me out. It’s not always easy to act against a limiting assumption, but it’s so much harder when you’ve not even identified it as a limiting assumption and begun to explore what alternatives could be.

3) Equality

“Even in a hierarchy people can be equals as thinkers. Knowing you will have your turn improves the quality of your listening”.

This is a really important condition: valuing everyone equally as a thinker is essential if we’re to respect one another. Kline’s application of this is really practical: she recommends team meetings and other group discussions start with everyone having their turn to speak uninterrupted, regardless of seniority or other distinction. Knowing that you’ll get your turn enables you to really listen to other people; you don’t have to butt in, or posture to speak next; just listen. It also has merit in families: ask your children what they think, and really listen. (My toddler is three years old so it’s not all intellectual gold – but it’s the very best window I have into his developing personality).

Equality is a hugely important principle in coaching too. As coach and client, we are equal; our roles are different, but we are equal to each other and both have responsibilities in creating a constructive coaching relationship.

4) Appreciation

Kline argues that individuals and organisations, on balance, tend to look critically at reality; we see the imperfections, the frustrations and the challenges more readily and more frequently than we see the beauty, the bits that work well and the opportunities. However, if our understanding of a subject or situation is skewed towards the negative (and therefore isn’t wholly ‘real’), we can’t do our best thinking and make the optimum choices.

To offset this, she proposes that a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism is necessary within a thinking environment. Appreciation should be “genuine, succinct and concrete”, and frequent. No faking it, no waffling on, and no generalising. I’ve seen the five-to-one ratio recommended elsewhere, and to be honest I’ve not always found it easy to achieve with my teams; not because they’ve not been great or not been doing fab stuff – it’s just seemed a bit awkward to focus so much on positive feedback when (in the main) my team-mates have been interested in self-improvement and therefore what they could do better next time. This is a trait I totally recognise in myself… How could I have had more impact in that situation? How could I have handled that better? What could I do differently next time? Kline goes on to describe why we find it hard to receive appreciation, even in relatively trivial circumstances… You like my hair? Oh, I wish it were straighter / wavier / longer / shorter…

Rather than dismissing or pooh-poohing appreciation, we should accept it as the gift it is and say thank you. We should think about what’s been said and let it have a positive effect on us, without downplaying it; and by saying thank you we encourage the giver to keep showing appreciation to others.

As a coach, I can show my appreciation for my clients by giving them my full attention and serving them as best I can, by giving them positive feedback (e.g. about the progress they’re making, or about behaviours I observe), and by helping to remind them of appreciation they’ve received from others. I’m careful not to collude, but that doesn’t mean I can’t praise.

“Change takes place best in a large context of genuine praise”.

5) Ease

Kline describes ease as “a presence defined by an absence… [an] absence of tension or rush”. It’s the antithesis of urgency, or pressure, or stress. It’s not needing to multi-task; it’s stepping the adrenaline right down. It’s the very definition of having time to think.

I’ve experienced plenty of times when ease has unfortunately *not* been a feature of my working and thinking environment. Indeed, it was certainly the case when I had my first ever experience of formal coaching. I was in a busy front-line operational leadership role in the civil service and had put myself forward for an opportunity to be coached. I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up for, but we scheduled the first session and my coach encouraged me to think in advance about what I wanted to focus on most.

It was a particularly busy time at work: we were moving to 7-day shift working over various locations and there was usually more than one fire to put out (figuratively, thankfully!). I remember this one-hour coaching appointment started to loom large in my diary… it wasn’t just the time commitment of the session, it was also the prep I needed to do in advance. Most days it was challenging enough to keep up with immediate demands, let alone think strategically about our service or my own personal development. I talked quickly, I walked quickly, I decided quickly, I acted quickly.

My coach seemed to be working in a different time zone to me. She spoke more slowly; breathed a bit more deeply; she encouraged me to keep talking, to say more; she wasn’t in a rush. I’d hurtle towards actions and next steps, and she’d gently and kindly encourage me to resist doing so just yet. I realised that what I’d been resisting had been exactly what I needed: time to think. It shouldn’t be a luxury, but it really is.

“Ease creates. Urgency destroys.”

6) Encouragement

“In a Thinking Environment encouragement is magic”.

In this part of her work, Kline argues that competition kills encouragement. If we are listening to someone with even an iota of competition (e.g. to respond more intelligently, to challenge more robustly) or envy, then we are not doing our best for that person. We may - whether inadvertently or on purpose - not listen closely, we may steer them away from one good idea to a lesser one, we may reveal our rivalry through our body language or tone of voice. Similarly, if the person to whom we are listening is feeling competitive towards us, they may not reveal their full thinking – and they will not achieve the full potential of their ideas. “Competition between thinkers fractures your fortitude to ask the questions nobody wants asked. It keeps your attention on the rival, not what you really think”. Instead, she urges us to encourage, and to champion.

A coaching relationship is a non-competitive relationship; coach and client are equals, working together. It’s one of the things I like so much about coaching because truly non-competitive relationships can otherwise be quite rare - even outside of work if we’re honest. Many of us can be quick to ‘one-up’ each other about who’s the most tired, who’s got the longest to-do list, who’s been there, seen that, got the t-shirt. Maybe we feel it builds rapport – but perhaps we’re just not listening?

7) Feelings

Kline argues that although thinking usually stops when we’re upset, it will restart if we express our feelings enough. And yet what normally happens is that when we’re upset – and particularly when we cry – we tell ourselves to get a grip, to stop, to put a lid on it. We say it to others too: “shh, don’t cry” to a friend who is upset; “there's no need to cry” to a child who is expressing frustration or fear.

Feelings can be particularly negatively perceived in the workplace where crying usually feels like something to be ashamed of; a weakness – rather than a necessary and normal expression of feelings.

But as a result of “pulling ourselves together” quickly, we still can’t think very well. And now we’re stuffed full of repressed feelings, and maybe also the shame of having gotten angry or upset as well. Instead, if we allowed ourselves (and each other) to express those feelings – to cry, to be angry, to be fearful – and just listen, then quality thinking will re-start.

Feelings and emotions sometimes come up in coaching conversations – occasionally without much warning. And they’re always welcome, as once they’ve been expressed, the thinking gets even better.

8) Information, sometimes

“Accurate, complete information is vital if people are going to think for themselves, clearly and boldly. So give information and ask for it – but only at the right times.”

Essentially, Kline argues that if we’re to help someone do their best thinking, we need to think very carefully about when we provide information to support that thinking, and why we’re doing it. Our instincts can be to supply information (or to correct misinformation) as quickly as we can - because we think we will be helping them. But unless we (i) supply information at the right time (i.e. not interrupting them, and waiting for a moment when we know it will actually help them, not just distract) and (ii) do so for the right reasons (i.e. not correcting them for the sake of it, or to show off) it can actually do more harm than good to the quality of thinking.

Likewise, she argues that our timing is also really important when we request information from someone who is thinking. If we ask clarification questions about things that don’t really matter, who is that for: us or the thinker? And is it worth potentially disrupting their flow of thoughts?

In the coaching space, I’m really conscious of this. When I coach I am non-advisory so rarely supply information - unless my client and I have agreed there is particular value for them in me doing so on a particular topic. But I’m quite often in the position where I have lots of questions I’d love to ask of a client, to help me understand their situation better – when actually me asking them for that information may be unnecessary to them… and may even harm their thinking.

The chapter concludes with a great section on what Kline calls “the Amy Question” (named after her friend, Amy). I’m not going to give the game away – but instead encourage you to get a copy of her book to find out more. It’s a great technique, and I’ve found it useful in my life, as well as with my coaching clients. You can send me a direct message if you need to know straight away!

9) Place

Kline argues that our physical environments can really support – or constrain – the quality of our thinking. That’s not to say there’s a single perfect environment: no optimum aesthetics, layout, or atmosphere. Instead, what really matters about a place in terms of its ability to support thinking is the extent to which it says to those using it: “You matter”.

What this means in practice is that the people who are using the space – with their specific and diverse requirements and preferences – have been at the heart of how the space is designed and operates. Sounds simple, but often overlooked.

What does this mean for coaching? Well, almost all my coaching is currently online with clients who are usually at home, in rooms which are familiar to them. That doesn’t always mean those spaces are telling my clients “you matter” though. If a space is cramped, or a bit uncomfortable, or being used for multiple different purposes it’s quite easy for that message to be lost. What little adjustments can you make to your spaces, to improve the quality of your thinking?

“A Thinking Environment says back to you, ‘You matter.’”

10) Diversity

“Diversity raises the intelligence of groups.” It frees our thinking by challenging the assumption that any dominant group is superior to other groups, and by challenging that a dominant group is “right” in their thinking - and that others are therefore “wrong”.

How many times have you been in a meeting where there’s been rampant groupthink… or a tendency to shoot down an idea from someone who’s not part of some kind of organisational 'in crowd’… or missed opportunities to think through how a proposal would impact different people in practice. When everyone looks the same and has similar experiences and worldviews, it is much harder for the best ideas to get aired, explored, developed and implemented.

Early in my civil service career I worked closely with the Police and would often be the only young, relatively junior, civilian woman in meetings with senior, male, middle-aged Police officers. I loved the occasions when I was actively brought into the deliberation and asked for my opinion on something because they knew it would provide something different and of value to what they were generating themselves. And when that didn’t happen it felt much harder to be heard, despite believing in the validity and usefulness of what I was trying to contribute.

When I coach I’m careful to consciously set aside any assumptions or biases about my client, and whether or not they and I share certain characteristics and experiences, or not. By staying curious and inviting my client to explore different thoughts and perspectives through open questions, I can do my best to ensure our two-person thinking environment is diverse – because that’s when the best thinking happens.

Closing thoughts

  • So, what's your ideal Thinking Environment?

  • In what conditions do you do your best thinking?

  • What ‘things’ (people, processes, places, systems) support and expand your thinking?

  • And what constrains your thinking, or closes it down?

  • And are those conditions the same for your team and colleagues?

  • What could be achieved if you improved the quality of the thinking you and your team routinely achieved by just 5%?

  • Or by 25%? What value or positive impact would that create?

  • And how might Kline’s Thinking Environment conditions help you achieve that?

I hope you’ve found this article interesting and useful. I’m a huge advocate for Nancy Kline’s work and this article is intended to be just a little taster of why.

If you want to find out more about how you can create the best possible thinking environment for yourself and your team, there’s only one thing to do and that’s to visit your local independent bookseller to buy a copy of “Time to Think”. The rest of the book contains really great practical examples that share how these conditions have been created and maintained in real organisations, with fantastic outcomes. Kline has also released “More Time to Think” and “The Promise that Changes Everything: I Won’t Interrupt You” – which are brilliant follow-on books and just as powerful.

And if this has sparked your thinking and you want to discuss any of the themes further, just get in touch.

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