ROAD TEST: THINK WELL, THINK TOGETHER

How can we work with the Thinking Environment® in groups and teams? asks Linda Aspey

What is it?

As technology shapes our lives in new ways every day, the need for people to work relationally, in alignment and with intelligence is increasingly important. We need to think well – together.

You don’t need a high IQ, experience, or prior knowledge to think. But if the conditions around us aren’t conducive to good quality, independent (ie, original, non-compliant) thinking, we won’t get great ideas, make progress or make good decisions. One of these conditions is, as Nancy Kline, founder of Time to Think® observed years ago, the quality of the attention that people give when thinking and talking together.

Over time, Kline observed a further nine conditions that reliably support independent thinking. She called these conditions The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment: Attention, Ease, Equality, Diversity, Encouragement, Information, Feelings, Appreciation, Incisive Questions and Place.

From these evolved the Thinking Session®. It’s since been applied in coaching1 and further applications have emerged as practitioners applied the Thinking Environment in other contexts including with groups and teams.

 

How it works

Often people in groups and teams don’t get the chance to contribute what they think, or it isn’t safe to do so. Others may contribute too much and dominate.

Hierarchies, silos, competition, risk aversion and lack of confidence, often fuelled by fear, can stifle positive interactions and effective thinking. Creating a Thinking Environment can quickly change the dynamics. As research from Google’s Aristotle Project2 demonstrates, psychological safety (an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk) is key to high-performing teams, and it’s also key to meaningful group participation.

Whatever the event, it puts the people in the room firmly in the driving seat of creating the culture in the here and now. There are several ‘building block applications’ for groups – Rounds, Thinking Pairs, Dialogue and Open Discussion, along with ‘full applications’ such as the Time to Think Council. All are underpinned by the Ten Components.

 

The coach’s experience

Naturally I need to ‘be’ a Thinking Environment myself, otherwise it won’t be congruent, and to keep all Ten Components in mind throughout.

With any group, to begin, I introduce three or four components, allowing others to emerge while doing or reflecting on activities. For example, I request that people don’t interrupt while others are speaking and instead give their full attention. I invite them to be and treat each other as equal thinkers; restrictive power and personality hierarchies can begin to dissolve. And inviting people to be encouraging and interested when others are sharing their thoughts, rather than intent on competing with a better idea, means that everyone’s thinking becomes bolder.

 

The application

The Transforming Meetings™ programme is a one-day course teaching the Components and applications to teams and workgroups. They can also be woven into team coaching, facilitations, workshops, conferences and offsites, right from the planning stage. For example, we always start with a Round or series of smaller group Rounds, so that everyone gets to speak if they wish to.

After a presentation from one of the participants, I can suggest Thinking Pairs or Dialogue to think together and bring back, to the whole group, their considered views or questions. I coach them to ask questions that will generate new thinking and not just answers, which people are often prone to do too quickly.

I use Incisive Questions that help them to discover any untrue, limiting assumptions about changes or challenges, and replace them with true, more liberating ones, shifting thinking from stuck to empowered and emboldened. And in preparing a place for them that is welcoming, easeful, comfortable, fresh and attractive, I have told them that they matter.

 

The verdict

I’ve found that having just one of the Components present improves interactions and thinking; when all Ten are brought to bear, meetings of all kinds can be transformed into highly productive and satisfying experiences for all. It’s rare that a group or team does not enjoy the experience; I always do.

  • Linda Aspey is an executive coach, facilitator, therapist, supervisor and teacher, and a member of the Time to Think Global Faculty
  • www.coachingforleaders.co.uk

The client’s experience

I manage 30 engineers who are passionate about what they do – it’s wonderful hearing so many ideas for solving problems. However, their keenness to share means meetings can be chaotic, with dominant engineers fighting for attention and quieter ones blocked from contributing.

Initially when I introduced the Thinking Environment some eyes rolled as I explained Attention, Diversity and Ease. Then we started with a Round – some struggled, uncomfortable looking into the eyes of the person speaking, not interrupting and having to sit still as they waited their turn. Soon, the atmosphere became calm and attentive as they listened to each other in this new way. They seemed genuinely interested in the diverse ideas the quieter team members had, including one new solution to a seemingly intractable problem! That meeting went from negative and doubtful to positive and purposeful.

I also enjoy using the Thinking Environment in other parts of my life and am noticing a new clarity, calmness and sense of progress. I’m always amazed at the impact of asking what people think instead of giving the answer. One of my team came to me with a problem and asked what he should do. I asked him what he thought. He paused, looked at me, described the pros and cons of various methods and came up with a solution. He thanked me for my advice!

 

The verdict

Overall, engineering meetings have changed from chaotic and stressful to calm and collaborative with stronger outcomes, as one team member commented to me recently, “I got goosebumps from [hearing] the exciting ideas we came up with.” It’s gratifying to hear some teams have even started using Components and building blocks when I’m not there. And it’s slowly permeating into day-to-day conversations.

 

Pros and Cons

Upside

  • As the Thinking Environment is more of a way of being than of doing, it can easily be built into existing programmes and complement other tools and exercises.
  • Raises awareness of unproductive team and group behaviours in a non-judgemental way, so people are more likely to take the practices into day-to-day working and personal lives.

Downside

  • Some resist because they assume that competition, urgency and challenge is a good thing (“as long as it’s not aimed at me!”). Yet thinking clearly when stressed or under fire is extremely hard to do.
  • Requires discipline to maintain: groups and teams can slip back into old ways unless committed to sustaining the new, more productive culture.

 

References and further reading

  1. L Aspey and M Lucas Road Test: Go Your Own Way, Coaching at Work, 9(2), March 2014
  2. Understanding Team Effectiveness
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