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How do you create the best thinking environment?

thinking environment

Guidelines, components and questions of a Thinking Environment

How do you create a thinking environment where people can be at their best? This would be somewhere they can think effectively and creatively, experiment and fail, reflect and learn, address challenges and make the best decisions.

Does this describe your working or learning environment? It could do, and arguably should do.

Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, has spent years researching and developing just how to make spaces where people can thrive. The principles that she has identified come together to make what she calls the ‘Thinking Environment’.

“Thinking for yourself is still a radical act.” 

Nancy Kline

What is the Thinking Environment?

The Thinking Environment is Kline’s concept of how to help people think better and is made up of ten components. These are:

  • Attention
  • Equality
  • Ease
  • Appreciation
  • Encouragement
  • Information
  • Feelings
  • Diversity
  • Incisive Questions
  • Place

How do you apply the principles of the Thinking Environment?

The individual aspects of the Thinking Environment can be explained and applied in the following ways:

Attention

We should be great listeners and give people our full attention. That is because great hearing leads to generative thinking, it is, as Nancy Kline says, ‘an act of creation’. 

We need to actively listen to what people are saying, not interrupting or just thinking about what we want to say next. Giving people our attention demonstrates our respect for that person and gives them and their thoughts worth.

“The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.”

Nancy Kline

How can you improve your attention and listening skills?

Here is an exercise to help you develop better attention and active listening: 

  • In pairs take turns to listen to the each other speak. It can be on any topic of person taking the thinking/speaking turn.
  • As a listener, when a thought comes into your mind visualise closing a door on that thought so you can return your attention to the speaker’s thoughts rather than your own. 
  • The listener should try not to say anything, or even make any noises, until the person has finished talking.
  • The thinker/speaker should be concise in their thoughts, where possible, and then let the listener know when that wave if thinking and sharing is done.
  • When the thinker has finished speaking don’t comment unless asked to. Otherwise just ask “what more do you think, or feel or want to say?”

You can learn more about listening skills by clicking on the link and reading the post Are you really listening?

Questions for reflection: 

  • When was the last time you listened to someone in conversation without interrupting them?

Equality

We are all different, we have different experiences and backgrounds, roles and responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and ideas; but we are all equal in worth. In a Thinking Environment everyone is valued equally as a thinker and everyone’s thoughts given equal worth. It is not a hierarchy or even a meritocracy; this is giving space for people to think as true equals.

This means that everyone gets their turn to speak, and while they do, everyone else listens. This helps to stop talkative people dominating conversation and encourages quieter folk to speak.

How can you develop more equality in your meetings?

  • If you are more senior in position or experience then you can help create the equality by modelling the behaviours in the Thinking Environment and being open in sharing your own feelings and thoughts.
  • At the beginning of a meeting or thinking session let everyone check-in. Pose a simple question and then go round all participants and give them a chance to share how they think or feel. Questions might include:
    • How are you doing/feeling today?
    • What is most on your mind right now?
    • What would you most like to think about or discuss today?

Question for reflection:

  • Do you really believe that the people in your meeting/session are of equal worth as people and thinkers?

Ease

You cannot think well in a rush. If there is too much pressure people can tip into a ‘fight or flight’ response where fear, automatic responses and defensiveness can cloud or even block good thinking. 

We need to develop ease in ourselves; it is a way of being as well as an absence of doing. Being calm, focussed and un-hurried will promote the best thinking in ourselves and others.

A space where people experience ease gives them the psychological safety to think, work and be at their best (Duhigg). 

How can you create ease?

  • If you are leading a meeting or session make sure you embody calm. Be on time, not flustered or distracted by other things. Take some time beforehand to make sure you are at ease with yourself.
  • Remove electronic devices during meetings. Phones, laptops, tablets can all be stored away, switched off or put on silent at the very least.

Question for reflection:

  • When was the last time you were in a meeting where you felt really engaged? How did you feel at the time?

Appreciation

Our minds latch on to negatives much more quickly and strongly than positives, about five more times in fact. Therefore it is important to give five times more positive remarks to a person than negatives or criticisms. 

Being a good critical thinker does not mean to need to be critical of others. Challenge is often used as an excuse to undermine a person, rather than bring clarity to a idea.

How can you better show appreciation?

  • Think about the positive things about who the person is, rather than just what they are doing. Appreciate something, some value, trait or characteristic that you admire in that person and share that. For example “I really appreciate your honesty” or “I love the depth of your concentration.”

Question for reflection: 

  • How many times today or yesterday have you shown your appreciation to someone else? In the same time period how many times did you correct or criticise someone?

Encouragement

Competition can be useful at times, but not so much when you are trying to think. Thinking is not a zero-sum game. A sense of competition will reduce ease and the sense of equality. Competition increases threat and forces a retreat back to the fight or flight, win-lose mentality. This comes at the expense of taking risks and being courageous in thinking, and losing focus on the idea, team or vision. 

How could you encourage people to think better?

  • When listening, whether in conversation, a meeting or other context, try not to share the thought or experience that pops into your head when the other person is speaking, unless they ask (unbidden) for your thoughts.
  • When it is your turn to speak, pause and ask yourself, will what you want to say help to further generate good thinking or will it create a sense of competition?

Reflection question:

  • Can you think of a recent conversation or meeting where you shared something to show that you had a similar (or better) idea or experience? Who benefitted from this?

Information

Thinking and good decisions are based upon having accurate information. If we have incorrect information our thinking and decisions will be flawed. The input of timely information improves our decision making cycle (see the OODA loop).

Even as listeners, there are times when we need to provide information for a thinker. If we deny someone the information they need we undermine the quality of their thinking. 

Quality information helps to break down wrong assumptions and perceptions. As Kline says, it ‘dismantles denial’.

How do you provide better information?

  • When someone asks for advice don’t tell them what to do or what you think is best. Rather, present your thoughts in a less directive way such as saying “In my experience…” or “I have read/heard that…” instead of “you should…” or “the best way is…”

Feelings

Many people think that showing or sharing feelings within a work context is abhorrent. For someone to show real joy or, even worse, tear up, can feel counter cultural or cringe-worthy. But if we suppress our feelings our minds us busy doing just that, rather than thinking well. 

This does not mean that every meeting needs to become a hullaballoo but giving space to express feelings allows people to get them out and then, after a space, to move on. So allow freedom for feelings; there may be a few tears, but hopefully a lot of laughter too and good thinking too!

How do you help people express their feelings?

  • Practical point: have some tissues on stand-by!
  • If you take the courage to be authentic and share your feelings, the people you are with are more likely to share theirs.

Reflection question: 

  • When was the last time you had to suppress your feelings in a work context? How did it change the way you could think or act?

Diversity

We live in a diverse world full of complex challenges and wicked problems. The best thinking environments reflect this and have a diversity of thinkers. Alternate backgrounds, experiences, cultures and points of view all help the creation and shaping of ideas. The other components to the Thinking Environment ensure that everyone for every background can freely share without fear of discrimination.

Many teams build through choosing people who are a good fit for culture or chemistry but this can often be at the expense of the best ideas.

How to do get develop better diversity in your teams and meetings?

  • When selecting people for a team, think more about good character and competence and worry less about chemistry or culture fit. 
  • When conducting meetings consider bringing in people from outside your team to encourage different viewpoints, ideas and challenges.

Refection question:

  • Is your team really diverse, or is it more of an echo chamber, with few challenges or new ideas?

Incisive Questions

The best questions are the ones that help a thinker overcome a blockage in their thoughts and allow them to carry on generating ideas and solutions. We all have to make assumptions in order to make decisions but not all of our assumptions are correct. This is where incisive questions come in.

Incisive questions are questions that cut to the heart of the matter and bring release. Incisive questions free the mind from limiting assumptions and help re-frame challenges and establish new liberating statements.

How do you ask incisive questions?

  • When someone feels they cannot do something ask, “What are you assuming that is stopping you from…?”
  • Then ask, “Do you think it is true that (state assumption)?”
  • If not true, then you can ask, “What are your words for what is true or liberating instead?”
  • Then, using the liberating assumption that has just been expressed, you can ask “If you knew that (insert liberating assumption), how would you (insert outcome)?”

Reflection question:

  • Can you think of a time you thought you could not achieve something due to a false assumption?

Place

Our physical environment is important. The revolution in workspace, led by companies life Google, is testament to this fact. The place we choose to live and work in gives us a sense of worth.

The environment where we choose to meet, think or discuss has a huge effect on how well we think. Picking a good space affirms to people that they matter and encourages courageous thinking. 

How do you choose the best place to meet and think?

  • Try to find somewhere away from the normal working environment, especially away from distractions such as phones, computers etc.
  • Try going for a walk, especially if you are just in a pair. They are many advantages to thinking while walking and you can find out more by reading The Surprising Power of Going for a Walk.

Reflection question:

  • Does the place where you usually think or conduct meetings support all the components of the Thinking Environment? If not, can you think of somewhere that could?

Thinking Environment Infographic

Here is a great info-graphic poster (created by Lita Currie of 3Stickmen), that summarises the 10 elements of the Thinking Environment.

Thinking Environment by Nancy Kline

“Until we are free to think for ourselves, our dreams are not free to unfold.”

Nancy Kline

References

Currie, L (2019) How to Think Better and Help Others Think Better Too, www.3Stickmen.com

Duhigg, C (2016) What Google Learned From its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York: The New York Times

Kline, N (1999) Time to Think.London: Ward Lock

Kline, N (2015) More Time to Think. London: Cassell

Kline, N (2019) Time to Think Website, https://www.timetothink.com/thinking-environment/

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