Saturday 2 April 2016

The Thinking Partnership Programme

Further to my recent posts about Nancy Kline's work (here and here), I have been on her Thinking Partnership Programme this week, and thought it would be interesting to record my initial reflections.

I should say that I have done days 1 and 2 of a 3 day programme - the third day is in May, when we have had the chance to practice and reflect on our learning from days 1 and 2.

The first thing to record is that it was a hugely enjoyable two days. Nancy (in green in my photo) was excellent, and the other participants on the course, Claudia, Colm, Jenny and Lars were fun and stimulating company. And the venue, Friars Ford in Goring was delightful, too. 

And then there was the content. We had plenty of practice, including rounds, paired work with other participants, and demonstration thinking partner sessions with Nancy working with each of us (except Colm - his turn will come next time) individually whilst the others observed.

We also had plenty of time for discussion, questions and laughter.

A number of things struck me. First of all, there is the power of the work. It seemed evident in all cases that the approach Nancy advocates is very powerful (and see below for comments around my gullibility and confirmation bias etc). Nancy, of course, is a highly skilled practitioner who demonstrates what may best be described as profound simplicity.

The rounds were highly effective; simply ensuring that each person present has the time to speak, with others' full attention on them (and thus no interruption), ensured that everyone arrived, and also connected with everyone else, quickly and simply. Nancy's clear explanation of what to do, including the need to be brief in fairness to all (and in the first round, to focus on something that is going well), was very helpful. I foresee starting many, if not all, of my future meetings like this.

The paired sessions, when we worked with other participants, practicing generative listening, were also powerful. In just five minutes, I got new insights into a problem that I have been worrying away at unsuccessfully for a while, or new ideas about a topic I had not given sufficient thought to until then. Likewise, practicing the listening was valuable: having the privilege of hearing others taking their thinking further, and recognising, once again, just how powerful attention is, in enabling the other person's brain to do its best work.

That was even more evident in the longer sessions when Nancy demonstrated the complete Thinking Partnership process. Each of us found that a very powerful session; and it was deceptive how little Nancy appeared to have to do in order to draw excellent - and new - thinking out of each of our brains. Of course, she was doing a lot; it was just that she said very little.

The process outlined in the books - the listening, and listening again, and listening again, followed (but only if necessary) by asking for the goal for the session, and then identifying and removing limiting assumptions with the Incisive Question - really works. 

I was also fascinated to see how Nancy treated a direct request for her views. She pointed out the danger of infantilising the thinker if one suggests a course of action; instead, she clearly and simply shared some relevant experience, allowing the thinker (Claudia, in this case) to make of it what she would. I learned a lot from watching that, and from Nancy's explanation.

In fact, her continued emphasis on avoiding anything that might risk infantilising the thinker, by placing the thinking partner on a higher plane in any way, has made me re-consider some of my own practice. For example, I always ask a coaching client at the end of a session what he or she plans to do. I always ask him or her to complete and return a Success Report. But should I? Should these be, at most, options available, rather than requirements?

As well as the practical sessions, I learned a lot from the discussions in between, and indeed the conversations over lunch and breaks.

Of particular interest to me was the synthesising of Nancy's (deceptively) simple approach with my interest in neuropsychology. I have blogged before about my learning from books like Neuropsychology for Coaches, and also about my concern that I (and other trainers) may be particularly susceptible to plausible but unproven (or even disproven) approaches (here). So I was fascinated to learn that Paul Brown, who co-authored Neuropsychology for Coaches had attended the programme, and what he made of it. 

Nancy told us that he had been both impressed and puzzled at the consistently reliable way in which the approach worked, in ways which he only sometimes managed to achieve in his own professional practice as a therapist. His theory, on reflecting on this, is that the components of the Thinking Environment quieten the amygdala, so that it releases the approach hormones (rather than the fight/flight hormones triggered, for example, by interruptions, urgency etc). These provide the best neural context for the brain to do its best thinking. 

That is clearly a hypothesis at present, and needs further research; but it is a plausible hypothesis that makes sense of the evidence, from a credible source.

Of course, questions remain. And I am glad, or there is a risk that day 3 would be less stimulating (though actually, I don't think that would be a real risk, even if I had no questions). But also, I am glad because I think we should always be questioning our practice and understanding.

The three that are at the top of my mind at present are ethics, permanence and the Positive Philosophical Choice.  The ethical questions arise from the non-directive nature of the process. The thinker is trusted to make the right meanings and come to the right conclusions; and that is clearly an important and powerful part of the process. But what if the thinker is pursuing a goal that is ethically unacceptable?  I think we will return to that on day 3.

Permanence is my biggest practical question. I recognise that the Incisive Question helps the thinker to replace an untrue limiting assumption with a true, positive one. But for how long? I am not sure if it is only intended to be for the duration of the thinking session, in order that new thoughts may be generated; but if so, that allows the old assumption to resume its dominance, which seems a shame. But if it is intended to over-write the old assumption permanently, I am concerned the approach underestimates the power of habits of thought, environmental and social stimuli, and so on. So that is another conversation I look forward to having on day 3.

And then there is the underlying philosophy: the Positive Philosophical Choice, as Nancy calls it. I quite accept that this is a very valuable working assumption. But what happens in those rare cases when one meets the genuine sociopath, for example? Again, a question I look forward to discussing on the final day of the programme.

So overall, I learned a great deal, was hugely impressed both with Nancy and her work, and would highly recommend the programme to anyone who wants to help others to think at their very best.

And I am looking forward to day 3 enormously.

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