About the Applications of a Thinking Environment

There are currently fifteen applications of a Thinking Environment, each with its own set of simple, precise rules.  Applications emerge via practice and are discussed and adopted via regular meetings of the Time to Think Collegiate worldwide.

Time to Think consultants offer opportunities to deepen and explore your practice in each of these Applications, via Foundation, Facilitation, Transforming Meetings and Thinking Partnership courses.  Please see http://www.timetothink.com for a register of consultants.

1.  Thinking Pairs

One of the ‘building blocks’ of a Thinking Environment, Thinking Pairs offer equality and the opportunity for guaranteed, uninterrupted Attention.  Until you’ve participated in a Thinking Pair, you can have no idea what a difference it makes to your thinking, to know you are not going to be interrupted.  At Northern College in 2008, I heard Nancy Kline say that interruption was an act of violence and it shocked me.  But, truthfully, to have your thinking interrupted by someone else is truly and negatively disruptive to your own train of thought.  Now, when I am tempted to interrupt – and I frequently am – I try to think, why do I think I know better than the person who is thinking effectively here about their own stuff?

2.  Dialogue

Dialogue is very much like Thinking Pairs in that it takes place between two people who are taking turns to listen with Attention.  The difference is that there are short, frequent turns back and forth in Dialogue, within a pre-determined time.  It is the responsibility of both parties to maintain balance of equality.  Nancy Kline describes the best dialogue as being not two people talking, but two people thinking.  It’s a challenge to maintain the Thinking Environment, because both of you have an investment in the topic and it’s tempting to fall back into old, culturally powerful, patterns of debate.  Done with Attention, Dialogue makes it impossible to think with a closed mind, impossible to take up a position and then defend it in a “fetish of assertion” (Williams, 2001).  It makes possible what Richard Sennett (2012) calls “dialogic discourse”, with its potential for new thinking.

3.  Thinking Rounds

Don’t dismiss the power of the Thinking Round – though you may have to think about how you present it.  There is a temptation for people with small children or grandchildren to dismiss the Thinking Round as “circle time”, but it’s far more powerful than that.  Thinking Rounds don’t work so well in isolation, because they challenge the prevailing view of how groups operate.  Nancy Kline believes that no-one has truly arrived in a room until they have spoken; the Thinking Round forces that speaking and, no matter how painful it is that very first time, no matter how inevitable the ‘creeping death’ of waiting your turn, once you have spoken, it gets a little bit easier to speak again.

Over time, the Rounds become a natural part of a healthy group culture; they start and finish the day and they are useful at points of stickiness, conflict and uncertainty.  In teaching, it’s good to use a Round to check out where people are at.  The question, of course, is important.  An opening Round should always have a positive question (eg “What’s going well for you?”), this brings an optimism to the group which helps build purpose and momentum.  The perfect closing Round question – though it does make some people cringe – is “What is live in you?”.  I’ve tried different substitutes over the years but nothing quite beats it for enabling people to keep their response as shallow – or take it as deep – as they want and need.

The most powerful learning I’ve done, when facilitating Thinking Rounds, is to stick to the rules.  No-one interrupts, everyone takes a turn (even if they choose to pass), no fidgeting with phones or pens and if you choose not to take your turn, you can’t go back.  If you relax any of these rules, it isn’t a Thinking Round and its impact will be different.

4.  Open Discussions

Rather than a structured process, Open Discussion is what happens when the group is used to maintaining Thinking Environment principles in its regular practice.  Inevitably, there is the potential for any Open Discussion to become dominated by the most talkative 30% and the role of the facilitator is to recognise this and move into another Application – maybe Pairs or a Round – to bring everyone back into the space.

5.  Transforming Meetings

This is a precise and challenging structure for meetings, which rests on the assumption that the best decisions are made when people think effectively for themselves and together.  It’s challenging because a ‘Transformed Meeting’ is very different in approach and style to a traditional business meeting.  Behaviours such as competition, intimidation, powerlessness, cynicism and formality are rife in many business meetings, even if no-one acknowledges them.  They inhibit thinking.  But changing this culture is hard and will meet resistance from those who want to hold on to the power that the traditional format gives them.  Sometimes it makes sense to introduce one element at a time:  expressing agenda items as questions, for example, or beginning with an opening Round.

6.  Timed Talk

Timed Talk is conflict resolution in a Thinking Environment.  It requires a willingness from both antagonists to commit to the process:  no interrupting, listening with as much Attention as you can manage, respecting the equality of the timer.  It can be incredibly powerful and, although it takes time (and might take more than one session), Timed Talk has the potential to resolve years-old conflict.  Try it.

7.  Presentations

The key to Presenting in a Thinking Environment is maintaining connection with your audience.  The process involves deliberately inviting eye contact with each member of the audience as often as possible and certainly at the start and end of the presentation.  The difference this makes is to a) how the presentation is received and understood and b) your own potential for learning; subsequent questions, for example, are likely to be deeper and more informed.

The problem with Prezi, PowerPoint or any other presentation media is that they interrupt the Attention between speaker and audience.  They can also – of course – provide very useful supportive visuals, which aid understanding.  Being mindful about the potential dominance of these media is helpful, when planning a Presentation which will truly connect.

8.  Thinking Partnerships

If one Application is at the heart of the Thinking Environment, then it’s the Thinking Partnership; a skilled, precise and rigorous process which mirrors the brain’s own patterns of thinking and problem-solving.  Nancy Kline believes that the mind which contains the problem will contain the solution and that people are capable of researching the information they need, once they know what questions to ask.  In a Thinking Partnership, the Thinker takes as much time as they need, to work through their own thinking, with the deep Attention of the Thinking Partner.  Sometimes this ‘Part One’ is all they need.  Should the Thinker still be blocked, the Thinking Partner guides them through a questioning framework, which is designed to identify and remove those untrue limiting assumptions which limit our growth, replacing them with true liberating assumptions through the device of the Incisive Question.

The Thinking Partnership framework looks like plumbing and works like a dream.

9.  The Time to Think Council

The Time to Think Council is a group Application, which beautifully focuses the Attention of every Thinker present, on the problem or issue being considered.  In a Council, peers offer knowledge and insight without telling you what to think.  The appreciative nature of a Council also means that the presenter will go away with confidence, as well as a rich and useful diversity of perspectives.  And the opportunity to explicate the issue, given respectful Attention and without interruption is in itself profound thinking time.

10.  Interviews

Imagine an interview which allows you to be creative, rather than terrified?  One which you come out of feeling appreciated?  This process enables the interviewee to give of their best, allowing the prospective employer to truly glimpse their potential.  It goes beyond the facade of nervousness to provide an easeful and liberating environment for both parties.  Useful for tutorials or any sort of professional discussion where people are wanting to get the measure of each other in a meaningful way.

11.  Facilitation

Facilitation or teaching in a Thinking Environment brings all the Ten Components into play.  It generates the best thinking from the whole group, not just the facilitator or the dominant few.  Thinking Environment educators utilise the four ‘building block applications’ – Rounds, Dialogues, Open Discussion and Pairs – to structure each session.  Key to this is for participants to know enough about the Ten Components to hold the balance, rather than leaving it all in the hands of the facilitator.

My teaching was transformed via an incisive question I considered during my Foundation Course:  What would change in my facilitation of groups if the facilitation became a Thinking Environment?  Addressing this question was one of the critical pathways in the development of the Community of Praxis.

12.  Coaching in a Thinking Environment

To coach in a Thinking Environment means to become deeply skilful in the use of the Thinking Partnership, to frame coaching sessions which move beyond this into more conventional processes for the setting and achieving of goals.  Sometimes, this means overcoming resistance in coachees who lack confidence in their own capacity as thinkers and who go into the relationship wanting to be told which steps they need to be taking.

The paradox of the Thinking Partnership is that its precise framework allows for multiple pathways, such as – where appropriate – the giving of information or the coach’s perspective.  A skilled coach remains mindful of the central assumption; the Positive Philosophical Framework of the Thinking Environment, which contends that the brain that holds the problem holds the solution.  In the thinking space it offers, coachees can grow their own confidence and self-awareness, via the identification and removal of untrue limiting assumptions and by the introduction of Incisive Questions into their lives.  The joy of coaching and being coached in this manner is that the Incisive Question, formed as it is from the coachee’s own words, cannot ever be anything other than a liberating and appropriate one.

Coaching – like any of the Thinking Environment Applications – is not therapy.  But that’s not to say that it can’t be therapeutic.  What happens is that the coachee moves on from their stuck place, once it is revealed to them that the limiting assumption they have held onto for so long, may not be true.  The therapeutic power of this is immense and may only be fully appreciated once the session is over.

13.  Mentoring in a Thinking Environment

Mentoring differs from coaching in that there is an assumption of deeper mastery of the subject and context, on the part of the mentor.  The structure of a mentoring session includes mini-Thinking Partnerships, which enable both the mentor and mentee to give their perspectives; rather than the conventional download of ‘wisdom’ from mentor to mentee.  It also assumes an ongoing relationship, which allows the thinking of both parties to grow in rigour and grace.

14.  The Diversity Process

The Diversity Process is glorious, for what it inspires.  It can be used as an individual or group Application and as a group Application it has additional value in growing trust, mutuality and a healthy group dynamic.  What the Diversity Process achieves for individuals is a meaningful understanding of what diversity is, through the application of Incisive Questions to one aspect of personal identity.  This unforgettable experience then allows follow-up work to be around how diversity can genuinely be embedded in practice, something which can never truly happen as long as ‘diversity’, ‘equality and diversity’ and – worst of all – ‘E&D’ remain meaningless, poorly understood, jargonistic concepts.

15.  Being a Thinking Environment

Being a Thinking Environment is an application which cannot be taught but can be coached.  It is best described as the sum of the other Applications, the consequence of immersing yourself in a Thinking Environment into your practice, and then considering what it means to your life.  It begins with the identification of personal and professional values and the deepening of mindfulness and reflexivity; a journey towards truly understanding why you do what you do.

Kline, N (2009)  More Time to Think Burley-in-Wharfedale  Fisher King

Sennett, R (2012)  Together:  the rituals, pleasure and politics of co-operation  London  Allen Lane Penguin

Williams, B (2001)  Truth and Truthfulness  Princeton  Princeton University Press


3 thoughts on “About the Applications of a Thinking Environment”

  1. I haven’t come across a better summary of the Applications of a Thinking Environment! Particularly useful for people to see how very versatile it is. Thank you!

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