Toolbox: The Thinking Environment

Coaching at Work road-tests the Thinking Environment (Time to Think)

Go your own way

1 The tool

What is it?

The Thinking Environment (TE) is a way of being that is more than a tool. It is built on a unique framework for generative thinking developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think, after years of extensive research into how we think best.

TE can be used wherever better thinking is desired – with individuals, teams, groups, whole organisations and in personal or work settings, including within coaching.

TE has 10 components – elements and behaviours that individually and collectively appear to have an impact on people’s ability for independent, generative thinking. At the heart of these is Attention – giving the ‘Thinker’ uninterrupted, respectful, fascinated and sustained attention. Others are: Ease, Equality, Appreciation, Encouragement, Feelings, Place, Information, Diversity and Incisive questions™.

A TE coaching session is very similar to the TE’s cornerstone Thinking Partnership session, contracting, for example, not to interrupt.

The coach asks: “What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?”

The client thinks or articulates whatever they wish, while the coach gives total, easeful attention.

As the client’s thinking gains momentum, they effectively self-coach – reflecting, connecting, generating new ideas, articulating their true feelings, having ‘Aha’ moments, prioritising and challenging.

When their thinking is exhausted, the coach invites a new wave by asking: “What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?”

The client continues to generate more. Sometimes the session moves into a different phase, where the coach asks very specific questions to help the client reach a conclusion.

For more information on this tool, and for those wishing to train as a Thinking Partner or to become a licensed coach, or facilitator or finally, a consultant and join the worldwide Time to Think Collegiate, visit


How does it work?

TE is underpinned by the belief that the quality of everything we do depends on the thinking we do first and that, given the right conditions, including how we’re treated by those with us while we’re thinking, we can all think well for ourselves.

If we’re allowed to go where we want and need to go with our thinking, we create something more intelligent, useful, liberating and energising – and something we’re more likely to implement successfully.

The mind that holds the problem is usually the best mind to solve it. Many of our problems are founded on untrue assumptions in our own minds, which we then live as true. The TE/Time to Think process helps us uncover these and choose credible, ‘liberating and true’ alternatives.

It is rare in life to encounter all 10 components together, which is what makes TE such a transformational coaching experience. TE probably quietens the amygdala and creates feelings of safety, trust and attachment, generating approach hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which make it possible to think unhindered by fear. Knowing you will not be interrupted is truly liberating.


2 The coach/administrator

The experience

TE is remarkably versatile. Some coaches use it as a standalone approach, others combine it with further tools. When I first encountered it, I assumed (as a former therapist) that giving this kind of Attention would be easy. I was wrong!

It sounds simple and yet it’s deeply demanding work for the coach (and sometimes the client). We’ve been trained to ask questions to stimulate thinking; in TE we use minimal questioning to support independent thinking. After many years of practice,
I am now more comfortable with not asking too many questions because I’m acutely aware of how they can ‘assault’ thinking. Input is given only when we’re sure the client has done all the thinking they can do.

At the end of a session, the client leaves, feeling relieved, decisive and purposeful, deeply satisfied that they’ve fully thought through and determined their own course of action. They are often astounded at what they have achieved in a single session.

Linda Aspey is an executive coach, coach-therapist, coach supervisor and Time to Think consultant

3 The client

The experience

I knew the TE approach helped create ‘independent’ thinking and was expecting the coach to do very little – allowing me to freewheel. I imagined it would be easy. In reality, it was probably one of my toughest coaching experiences yet.

During the first 20 minutes I was happily freewheeling and exploring my own thinking, asking and answering my own questions as I worked uninterrupted. That, in itself, is a rare treat – a promise that no matter how much you go ‘off piste’, you will not be interrupted.

At times, I felt like I had run dry, not sure what or where to go next. I looked back to the coach for some help.  Traditional coaches might have made an observation, provided a summary or perhaps a challenge. The Time to Think coach simply asked: “What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?”

What happened then is an ‘as if by magic’ experience. My brain gathered new energy and I typically found ‘something more’. It was as though I was opening little cupboards in my brain to see what was in there. Some were empty, but others held a trigger that led to another wave for my monologue. This required a surprising amount of mental effort.

I’ve had shorter and longer TE sessions face to face and by phone, but each time I reached some kind of resolution. By the end of the sessions, not only was there a way forward, there was a lightness and certainty about the ‘truth’ of each solution for me.

I’ve found that with more traditional coaching, outcomes that seem eminently do-able in the session don’t actually get achieved; perhaps the session momentum gets deflated once real life happens.

So far, every outcome I have reached as a Thinker has led to action. Importantly, I was so clear that this was absolutely what I needed to do, that there was no angst when reflecting on my decision.

The TE approach genuinely allows you to come up with your own original solutions. Doing this without any input on content can be challenging, and there were moments of vulnerability when voicing my ‘unchecked’ thinking. However, the coach was my rock – bringing a quality of presence and support that said: “Go on, say whatever you think. I’ll be here with you”.

Michelle Lucas is an executive coach and coach supervisor



Thinking Environment: pros and cons


l  Creates trust, offers respect, autonomy and optimism for the client

l  Gets the coach out of the client’s way like nothing else we’ve encountered!

l  Having experienced this quality of listening for themselves, clients becomes better listeners

l  Often gets to – and resolves – key issues quicker than traditional coaching.



l  Some clients expect the coach to ‘do something’, and find it uncomfortable, particularly at first

l  Requires the coach to put away their toolkit, to be an equal not an expert, and just ‘be’ – which can be challenging

l  Requires extensive practice to really master it.


Coaching at Work, Volume 9, Issue 2

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