Nancy Kline knows one thing that makes all the difference – helping clients think for themselves, without interruption. Liz Hall interviews the founder of Time to Think and pioneering creator of the Thinking Environment
Can you pinpoint a single moment when you heard the calling to become a coach? For me, it was when I first heard Nancy Kline speak some 15 years ago about the Thinking Environment, the approach she has developed to help people do their best independent thinking.
Nancy is the founder of the leadership development and coaching consultancy Time To Think, and the author of the best-selling books, Time To Think (1999), More Time To Think (2009), and the recently published, The Promise That Changes Everything (2020).
Like many others, when I first listened to Nancy, I was bowled over by her presence, gentle strength and exquisite eloquence, and by the compassion, simplicity and transformative power of the approach she described and illustrated, including with compelling client stories. Here was a framework that could truly support both coach and client to get out of their own way in service of generative independent thinking. I was hooked. Having been content thus far to be an observer, I suddenly knew I wanted to be part of this profession, as a practitioner. I know others who have been similarly impacted.
Of course, it isn’t ever only about just one moment, as Nancy herself highlights typically eloquently in the conversation we had for this article.
Her latest book came about after the publishing director of Penguin Life, who’d read Time To Think, invited her “to write that book for a wider audience, completely up-to-date and including, given the state of our society, a discussion of polarisation.”
The Promise Not To Interrupt
Accepting the invitation, Nancy reflected for many weeks on the one thing that makes all the difference – if you had to choose just one – in helping people to think for themselves.
“That key element is the promise of no interruption. To think for ourselves it matters, yes, that we are not interrupted. But to know we will not be interrupted is a different experience altogether. To know we will not be interrupted clears the way for a different level of fine thinking to emerge. It is extraordinary how simple that observation is, but how packed with ‘quarks’ of complexity it is as well. Inside the promise not to interrupt, there seems to be a ‘force of nature’ that brings the mind to life.
“The focus on that promise shaped the book. And soon I realised that the book needed to accomplish three things, which became the three parts of the book: 1) understanding independent thinking, 2) understanding interruption, 3) understanding the promise.
Systems of interruption
During the writing, Nancy began to see the intricate relationship between interruption and social polarisation.
“I recognised for the first time the existence of systems of interruption, not just personal, one-to-one, acts of interruption. I realised that we are all living in social systems that are limiting the quality and independence of our thinking.”
She coined new terms for two of these systems: “conformonomics”, which is “the impact of various economic systems requiring consumer conformity, limiting our ability to think for ourselves”. And “digistraction”, “the merging of distraction and our digital world”. Nancy is fierce about this phenomenon. “Digistraction is thinking’s existential threat. We need to do whatever it takes to expunge it from our lives.”
She identifies also the interruptive system of persuasion, the psychological practice of controlling what we think and how we act.
Finally, she discusses the system of polarisation. Nancy surmises that interruption itself can lead to polarisation. “Polarisation is not a result of disagreement. It is a result of disconnection. We can disagree fiercely and not polarise if we can stay connected to each other. But as soon as we disconnect, we move inexorably into rigid opposition and then into polarisation. Interruption of each other’s thinking can register as a threat, not just to our position on an issue, but to our identities, to our very being. We can experience interruption as assault, as an act of disrespect, even of intentional obliteration. When we do, disconnection settles in. And we polarise.
“This polarisation, this deep disconnection, becomes then a system of interruption of our thinking. We feel that in order to stay intact we must stay wedded to a particular view. We don’t dare glimpse wisdom or efficacy in the other’s view. Soon we no longer listen to the other, nor even to ourselves. We can no longer think.”
The Thinking Environment
How did the Thinking Environment come about? “The thinking environment as an innate condition for thinking seems to have existed as long as thinking humans have. But the Thinking Environment as a pieced-together, formal body of thought began, I think, when I was seven. On that day my mother, usually an elegant, understated person, inexplicably charged through the drawing room with her fist in the air, shouting: ‘There is no greater crime than the waste of a single human mind’ and disappeared down the hall. I think that that aberrant act of advocacy planted a seed in me that grew into a passionate appreciation of the human mind, of the importance of nurturing it, and of generating independent thinking everywhere.
“When I was thirteen, my algebra teacher, seeing that my [wrong] answer to an equation had come from the girl in front of me, said, ‘Next time, Nancy, think for yourself!’
“And later at Hockaday and at Scripps, both schools that nurtured independent thinking explicitly (the Scripps College ‘mission statement’ said: ‘The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently’), I found profound resonance with my mother’s passionate outburst.”
When Nancy entered the world of work, she continued to be exposed to that value. Her first job was at a Quaker school “absolutely committed to the Quaker idea that ‘there is that of God in every person’, and that to nurture that ‘light’ was to nurture the mind, to help students to think for themselves.” Peter Kline (her boss and later her co-founder of another Quaker school) said to her, “Above all, we want our students to value independent thinking.”
“When I first worked with Peter, I was only 22. I remember thinking when he said those words that to fulfil them would probably shape my life. In that formative time, independent thinking did, indeed, become both my pragmatic and my philosophical passion.
“But the thought and practice we now call a ‘Thinking Environment’ started a decade later. I was looking out over our school’s playing fields and felt a yearning, a longing I couldn’t put my finger on. I felt I wanted to do more to make a difference in the world. Suddenly from nowhere came this question: ‘What is the one thing which, if it were to change, could change everything else for the better?’ And an answer: ‘the quality of everyone’s independent thinking’.
“I recognised, as if for the first time, that the quality of everything human beings do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. Obviously, the quality of our actions depends on other things as well, but there is a compelling correlation between exquisite independent thinking and exquisite practical outcomes.”
Nancy decided to leave the school “to research independent thinking widely”. First, she started The Leadership Institute “because I thought that if leaders could start truly to think for themselves and become good at helping others to do that, our world might begin to rearrange itself, spawning a more radiant intelligence around us.”
But three years into that search, she gave up. “And it was from that surrender that the future blossomed. I had tried everything I could to help people to think for themselves. They were thinking well, but not always for themselves. I wanted my time with individuals and groups to produce a surge of quality independent thought every time. I wanted people habitually to think for themselves with rigour, imagination, courage and grace. I longed for that beauty.
“So I gave up everything I’d learned about thinking and about listening. That was a lot – by then I had been an educator, a peer counsellor, a practitioner of Quaker and Peter Kline pedagogy. I’d been a student of psychology and philosophy. But I was desperately eager to produce the distinction between good thinking and good independent thinking. And none of the 12 kinds of listening I had learned was doing the job. That moment of surrender was when the systematic uncovering of the ‘Thinking Environment’ began. I decided to ‘do nothing’ except give people attention and to promise not to interrupt. Amazing things began to happen.
“Soon I could see that when I thought I was ‘doing nothing’, I was actually doing something whose simplicity heaved with complexity, complexity that needed unpacking, understanding and practice. I began to recognise that this streamlined way of being with a person made it possible for them to keep thinking for themselves and to improve the quality of that thinking second by second. That way of being, that system of ten ‘behaviours’ we now call the ‘Ten Components of a Thinking Environment®’, turned out to be catalytic.”
The Ten Components are: attention; equality; ease; appreciation; encouragement; feelings; information; difference; incisive questions™, and place.
Where does the Thinking Environment meet coaching? “That has been an interesting journey. The Thinking Environment predated the appearance of coaching as a listening profession. And at one level you need only train as both a coach and a Thinking Partner to recognise the differences between this way of being with clients and a classic coaching approach. At another level the Thinking Environment is a brilliant coaching framework.
“As coaching was emerging as a profession, I got the impression that coaches were listening primarily in order to speak, to reply, to ask a ‘killer’ question, to take the client where they thought the client could most productively go. I didn’t see the Thinking Session as coaching because we weren’t listening to reply or to guide or to ask, but rather to ignite.”
Nancy was soon invited to speak at a coaching conference hosted by the early leaders in the development of coaching. “This invitation surprised me. So I questioned it. But David Megginson (co-founder of the EMCC), said, ‘If coaching is to be anything, it needs to be a place for clients to think well.’ Encouraged, and with gratitude, I accepted.”
Shortly after that conference I heard her speak in Oxford for the OCM (then the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring led by another founder of the coaching movement, Eric Parsloe). Clearly the coaching world was growing interested in this body of thought and practice.
“Today the world of coaching embraces the value of creating Thinking Environments. The process is part of several MSc programmes; a number of Masters and PhD dissertations have researched it; the Time To Think books are required reading on many coaching programmes. It is lovely to experience this interface.
“Equally, the Thinking Environment lives outside the official world of coaching. The ideas and processes of the Thinking Environment continue to develop independently. We scrutinise them consistently. We notice what actually works and what doesn’t. We keep what is efficacious. We discard, if sometimes with a sigh, what isn’t. We do not seek to fulfil organisational competencies or requirements.
“So I would say that the Thinking Environment is an ‘outsider colleague’ of the world of coaching.”
Even now, when she teaches, Nancy finds that “coaches have to find the courage to be this ‘non-interventionist’.” They have to trust the intelligence of the client in ways they find deeply, but satisfyingly, challenging. The contrast between even the most client-centred coaching and the Thinking Environment is still vast.
“It’s as if when people go into coaching, they realise they weren’t the great listener they thought they were; and when they learn the Thinking Environment, they realise that as a coach they are not quite the expert listener they thought they had become. They find that they still need to take a giant, and different kind of, step to achieve this level of generative presence with a client.”
Four Key Questions
“When coaches attend our courses, they find that they have to step back and ask themselves four questions.
The first is: ‘Do I really want my clients to think for themselves – always?’ Coaches are really asking ‘What do I want for my clients? Will they pay me to generate their own thinking when they don’t value it as much as they value mine?’ It is an interesting and intricate moment when coaches decide that at least for the duration of the course and practicum, they will commit to a desire to produce fully independent thinking in their clients – always.
“The second question is: ‘If I do want my clients to think for themselves always, what do I need to do to help them to do that? How is that different from what I usually do?’ The course then reveals how deep that difference is.
“The third question is: ‘How far can my clients go in their own thinking before they need mine? And how much further than that can they go? And how much further even than that?’
“The fourth question arises at a moment we all know only too well. It is the moment when we have been listening like angels, listening so well that we wish every single person who ever trained us to listen had been in the room to watch us. It is the moment when suddenly, because we have been listening so impressively, we absolutely ‘know’ what the client needs and we are sure that their need can be filled only by our speaking in this moment.
It is the moment when we know that if we could just share our insight, ask our question, point out the inconsistency in their thinking, show them what they are not seeing, guide them in our inspired direction, their life and their organisation and, who knows, maybe even the world, would change in an instant. It is that moment when we are certain that it is practically a civic duty to speak.
“Right then this fourth question moves to centre stage: ‘How do I know for sure that what I am about to say will be of more value than what my client is about to think?’ The answer is, of course, ‘I can’t.’ It is embarrassingly elementary: because the client hasn’t yet thought their thought, we can’t know for sure that ours is better.
“This moment is sobering, and it takes courage to recognise it and heed it. It is essentially a risk assessment moment. It asks, ‘What is the greater risk: to sacrifice the client’s unthought thought or my own thought thought?’
“I draw on [thinker] Nassim Taleb for guidance here. He taught me that when assessing risk we want to be sure that the downside from the loss will not be greater than the upside from the gain.
“And in this moment with clients I think it is nearly always true that to lose their unthought thought is a greater risk than to lose our thought thought. We can always retrieve the thought we’ve had, but we might lose forever the thought they have not yet had. And theirs might well have been of far greater value than ours.
“In that way our continuous generative attention is not only a reiterative decision to trust the intelligence of the client. It is also a constant assessment of risk of loss.”
“From the beginning of that ‘surrender’, what we call the Thinking Environment, has emerged from noticing what works. It has never been a conscious concoction of a system, methodology or even a process. It has been an attempt to replicate what seems to be going on naturally when the human mind is on an independent roll. We have come tentatively to understand something of that ‘natural’ process so that if the person cannot in the end unblock their thinking themselves spontaneously, we can replicate the way the mind typically would have unblocked it if it could.
“The thing about discovery, as opposed to concoction, is that it is largely piecemeal. There are, of course, flash moments of huge insight that are rapturous. But mostly it is one painstaking step at a time to see, and then to understand, what we just saw.
“Discovery is also a voracious commitment to digging for what is true. We have to want to see what is right in front of us, particularly when we sense that it may upend our theory. When we want to know what is true, what actually works, we become willing to ‘slay our darlings’.”
Early on, for example, Nancy had an insight that “made an enormous difference in how the session could be structured.” She recognised that “the key block in thinking wasn’t just an assumption, which was exciting enough to realise, but that actually it was an untrue assumption being lived as true. “Before that we flapped around in the dark, getting lucky sometimes, asking questions that did get rid of assumptions, but not really understanding what we were doing. I think often of [philosopher] Daniel Dennett’s reflection on evolution: ‘There is such a thing as competence before comprehension.’
“The piecing together of the Thinking Environment has always been that kind of evolutionary process. Our comprehension has come after our competence.
“It has also been aided by new developments in other disciplines whose fresh discoveries have helped us understand why the Thinking Environment works. That happened first many years ago through Professor Paul Brown’s analysis of the neuroscience behind the Thinking Environment, then through Michael Heuermann and later Mark McMordie who saw that the disciplines of mindfulness, compassion and psychological safety are inherent in the Thinking Environment.”
Nancy’s thinking has also recently evolved in reference to the Ten Components. The definition of the component of “information”, for example, now includes “social context” in addition to “supplying the facts”, and “dismantling denial”.
“Social context was always there, but [transformation coach] Althea Banda-Hansmann of South Africa helped us recognise it. We now see that we need to honour social context consciously, which is not always a straightforward process. It matters hugely, though, because the social context of any gathering of people contains each person’s diverse array of group identities, societal struggles as victims and victors and current experiences of privilege or oppression. When we consciously acknowledge social context, we realise that we matter. When we know that we matter, we can think for ourselves.
Nancy is now developing an author website, a ten-year dream come true, which in addition to her books, features new pieces of writing, “ranging from the whimsical to the provocative to the contemplative”.
Also, she and her colleagues are figuring out how to turn Zoom into a reasonable facsimile of a Thinking Environment. During this pandemic year Time To Think professionals have introduced the Thinking Environment to health systems, agencies of government and universities around the world exclusively through this platform.
“Although it is for me heartbreaking to sacrifice some of the dimensions of a Thinking Environment that occur only in person, Zoom has allowed our work to become more widely available, and that is thrilling. “The other thrilling thing has been to see how Zoom itself improves as its users turn it into a Thinking Environment. You might call it a sweet collaboration: Zoom offers the Thinking Environment more breadth; the Thinking Environment offers Zoom more depth.”
Nancy’s passions during this pandemic time have been many. “Being home with Christopher has been the best part of this year for me. If, when I fell in love with him 38 years ago, someone had said to me, ‘If you can live long enough, you will one day get to be home with only Christopher every day all day for over a year’, I would have said that was absolutely worth living for.
“I also am loving this spate of time to write every day, and to read, particularly the thinking of Richard Feynman (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out), Carlo Rovelli (Reality is Not What It Seems), and Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct). They have been delicious undertakings. And I spent several happy months juxtaposing the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin’s analysis of Tolstoy’s theory of history with the book-length poem Spring and All by William Carlos Williams.”
Nancy has also continued her nine-year correspondence with the scientist and thinker, Bill Godwin. “Nine years ago I asked Bill if I should be excited about the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. He answered with an emphatic ‘Yes!’, and from that exchange grew a robust correspondence of questions and ideas that continues today. I intend one day to publish excerpts from this collection.
“So even from the horror and loss in our pandemic world, there has for me emerged a bit of time, a bit of heaven.”
I know one thing for certain, Nancy won’t ever rest on her laurels when it comes to evolving her thinking, and helping others to do the same. As she says on her website, “I long for us all to be able to sit impatiently for the moments when we spot the error, the anomaly or the gap in our thinking, face it, anticipate the learning ahead and say, ‘Hooray, we were wrong!’ ”
Nancy Kline Books and further info
- N Kline, The Promise That Changes Everything: I Won’t Interrupt You, Penguin Life, Penguin Random House, 2020
- N Kline, Time To Think: Listening To Ignite the Human Mind, Cassell, Octopus Publishing Group, 1999-2019 (fourteenth printing)
- N Kline, More Time to Think, Cassell, Octopus Publishing, 2009-2018 (third printing)
- N Kline, Living With Time To Think: The Goddaughter Letters, Cassell, Octopus Publishing, 2014