This article is by Soshan Soobramoney, one of Protagion’s mentors. Soshan is a qualified actuary who has worked in a number of product and customer-facing roles in the insurance industry, and now is a lecturer teaching future actuaries at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He is also a Time to Think facilitator – in that capacity he teaches others how to create environments that enable people to think beautifully and courageously for themselves. Such training allows us to improve the quality of our relationships, structure meetings to maximise their impact, boost the quality of the thinking of our team members, and increase our effectiveness as leaders. Here is his introduction to the Time to Think principles:
“What is the one thing that, if it could, would change everything? This important question and others drove Nancy Kline, bestselling author of Time to Think*, to a lifetime of work on how human beings could “be” with each other in such a way that ignites our human potential and increases our intelligence.
I first came across Time To Think in a three-week leadership course I did while working in the insurance industry several years ago. I was fascinated at how the facilitators of that course made me feel that I was thinking, growing and flourishing during every single minute of those three weeks. “How did they do that?” I wondered after each day of that course. And how could I be the type of leader that generates that kind of creativity and energy in people? I soon discovered that those facilitators understood some powerful things about how the human mind works. What ignites it and what blocks it. How it hates to obey but loves to play. How it dances at the sound of a question but stumbles when given an instruction. How it creates in the presence of ease but freezes up in the presence of urgency. So when I was due to move to London at the end of that year, I made it a goal to meet Nancy Kline and started studying with her. I’ve been studying this work for nearly a decade and I continue to get more and more excited about its potential to change the world, the more I learn about it...
The quality of everything human beings do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.”
An environment perfect for thinking
Have you ever felt that you sounded more intelligent or became more articulate when talking to a particular person? It turns out that a very important thing (if not the most important thing) that changes the quality of someone’s thinking is how they are being treated by the people they are with, while they are thinking. This brings us as parents, teachers, leaders, and co-workers to a crucial question: How can we treat people in a way that allows them to think well for themselves – with courage, rigour, imagination and grace?
The implications of this philosophical choice are profound. It means that the ultimate job of a leader is to create the conditions for their people to do their best thinking. Giving high quality attention, the kind that ignites thinking in others, is at the cutting edge of leadership. Nancy Kline refers to this way of being in the world as “creating a thinking environment” and here is a summary of the 10 components of a Thinking Environment:
Thinking at its best is not just a cool act of cerebration. It is also a thing of the heart.”
An illustrative personal example
I recently connected with a dear friend who lives in London over a video call. We hadn’t spoken in months but the high level of trust between us allowed for a relaxed and easeful conversation. After catching up on life events and how each of us was coping with the COVID-19 lockdown, she started to talk about how disheartened she’d been feeling about humanity of late. She spoke about the inequality in our world and the unfairness of it all. She felt that the lockdown was showing us how important front-line workers are and that we still don’t give them the respect they deserve. I had a choice to interrupt her or give her my own ideas. But I decided instead to remain silent, implicitly giving her permission to explore her feelings and ideas more deeply, to possibly go to unchartered territory and work through what was clearly a painful subject.
She gave examples of things that saddened her and shared how this level of uneasiness with the way things are, was causing her a great deal of anxiety. “The people serving us every day don’t get treated as well as they should. Does the teller at the supermarket get the recognition she deserves? Why do people doing important jobs, like cleaning our workplaces, get paid so poorly? I hope that we start to see what is important but I wonder whether things are really going to change once this is all over. I must admit I have my doubts…” She paused and apologised for her “negativity”. Again, I had the opportunity to intervene. I could have told her there is nothing wrong with feeling down or shared an experience of my own. But that would have changed the course of her thinking and I was way too interested in where she was going to do that. So I simply appreciated her and invited her to keep going. “I really admire how deeply you care about people who are often overlooked. I am keen to hear more. What else do you feel?” I said.
My attention was giving her courage to go to the cutting edge of her thinking. The fact that I did not interrupt her and the open-ended invitational question allowed her to dig deeper and be brave about her feelings on societal inequality. She went on to release the anger she felt and eventually began reflecting on the wonderful things in our lives, something that she is so good at doing. She eventually said “You know, when I think about it, I am surrounded by awesome people doing amazing things every day. That keeps me going and gives me hope for a better future. And I am grateful for the friendship we share and that I can pick up the phone and know there is someone who cares about the things I care about.” I suspect she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders, even if just for a moment. I know she felt safe and valued. The Thinking Environment created made her feel that her thoughts mattered profoundly. And importantly, she was able to think afresh… bigger, bolder and fiercer than before!
While that was a simplified example, it illustrates the value of offering attention of the highest quality, appreciation and encouragement, and acknowledging the thinker’s feelings in a context of ease. Applying the Thinking Environment principles creates the conditions for your relationships to grow stronger. In Nancy’s words: “...perhaps the most important thing we could do with our life and with our leadership was to listen to people so expertly, to give them attention so respectfully that they would begin to think for themselves, clearly and afresh.”
Love, the act of allowing the other to be a legitimate other, is the only emotion that expands intelligence.”
Coaching and removing limiting assumptions
In a coaching context, a good coach recognises that their job is to bring out the brilliance of their client. Behaving in this way therefore allows them to help their clients get to the roots of their issues and develop their own unique solutions for themselves.
Sometimes, despite lots of expert listening that is offered to the thinker, they still may not be able to overcome certain blocks in their thinking. These blocks are often assumptions made by the thinker unawares, assumptions that seem like truth. These limiting assumptions make it impossible for the thinker’s ideas to flow further. In the next section, I give a business example of how an Incisive Question can help remove a limiting assumption.
Real-life Thinking Environments in a business context
In running certain meetings, I turned agenda items into questions and conducted “Rounds” where every person got a turn to give their answer to a particular question. Turning agenda items into questions can be powerful because the mind works best in the presence of a question. Another benefit is that people start thinking about the topic even before they enter the meeting. In one of the teams that I managed, we had people dialling in from multiple countries for a weekly team call. I always started the meeting by drawing a simple picture showing the names of people seated around the virtual table. When I opened the meeting with a positive, energising question such as “What about being a part of this team makes you feel proud?”, I reminded the team of the order people were sitting in and gave each person a chance to share a thought. This technique can be used for each question on the agenda. In my experience, running meetings as Thinking Environments and using techniques like these have made meetings shorter, more effective and much more enjoyable. The quality of relationships improves and the collective intelligence of the group increases.
In one workshop I facilitated, we were developing a new insurance proposition for a niche market where the company was very reliant on independent brokers to deliver the company’s value proposition to corporate clients. Winning the favour of the brokers was therefore critical to successful expansion into this market. At one stage of our brainstorming, the energy was very low. I asked the group “What are we assuming that is limiting our thinking here?” and gave each person a chance to respond. It turned out that a key assumption the team was making was that brokers did not care about the value to the client and that they just wanted the sale (and their commission). I asked the following Incisive Question: If you knew that the broker wants what is best for their client, how would you design their participation in our proposition? Some great ideas flowed after that, including how our company could better empower the broker to deliver key risk management tools to their clients. In that session, the team came up with an extensive list of ideas they’d never thought of before. This was exactly what the team leader wanted to achieve.”
Learn more about Time To Think
Two very short videos of Nancy Kline are below (2-4 minutes each). In the first, she shares her key tenet on thinking at its best, and in the second she reminisces about her father’s early use of an Incisive Question to empower his own independent thinking:
By mastering the theory and skill of a Thinking Environment people do enrich their work, their life and their relationships. Organisations do produce better ideas in less time with better business outcomes. They also increase the motivation and commitment of their work force… Perhaps most important is the possibility that by taking steps in this way to turn our world into a Thinking Environment, into a place this stimulating, this kind, this alive, this authentic, where no human mind is wasted, and no human heart is trampled, we will not only improve things for ourselves but we may also create a legacy we would be proud to leave.”
Further information on creating Thinking Environments in business and personal contexts can be found at timetothink.com Or, to arrange a mentor session with Soshan, where he is happy to share more information on these concepts with you one-on-one, or roleplay how you can support and develop your team using these techniques, please signup as a member and book a session with Soshan under “Connect with Mentors”.
Where have you used some of these Time to Think principles in your life, at work or at home? Please do share your experiences of independent thinking with our readers in the comments below.
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