Wednesday 10 March 2021

Humour in a Thinking Environment

The other day I was running a workshop looking at the use of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv) in the context of meetings.  One of the participants asked a great question. (Actually several of them did, but there is one question I want to focus on in this blog post).

He asked whether the prohibition on interrupting in a Thinking Environment might risk stripping them of humour.  Often a joke arises 'in the moment' and is relevant and funny only if interjected in the conversation at that precise time. He added that stripping our meetings of humour and laughter was too high a price to pay, if that were the case.

I have been reflecting on this. I agree that humour is valuable and laughter even more so. There are many reasons for that, ranging from the effect they have on us individually, to the effect they have on us collectively, and including the tendency of good jokes to include a radical shift or collision of perspectives, which also promotes fresh thinking.

My initial thinking is that interrupting is still problematic: it always disrupts the thinker's thinking, and we will never know where he or she might have gone next, and what the value of that might have been. To interrupt is to say that we know that what we are thinking (eg our brilliant joke) is more important than what the person who is speaking is thinking, and is about to say: and we cannot know that. 

So, if we accept that hypothesis, what are our options?  We could hold on to the joke until it is our turn to speak - possibly even referring back to the comment that stimulated it.  But I accept that might fall a bit flat. However, if it offered genuine insight. presumably that is still valuable, even if the context that would have produced the laugh is gone.

And if it wasn't genuine insight, we might do well to examine why we wanted to interject with the joke anyway.  Were we attention-seeking?  Were we trying to lighten the atmosphere? And if the latter, why was that? One of the other components of the Thinking Environment is Feelings; and the idea there is that we enable and allow people to express their feelings, confident that once they have done so, good thinking will follow.  If we are seeking to alleviate our own discomfort with the emotional intensity of a conversation, that is another form of interruption.

As already suggested, there are several good ends served by humour and laughter; but the more I reflect on that, the more I think that many of these ends are served by other means in a Thinking Environment. For example, the need for emotional release is explicitly allowed for, with regard to the individual thinking at any one time. As a listener, you may have to wait your turn for that luxury: but you know that your turn will come. Likewise, the need for connection is actively addressed by many of the components: the quality of attention we give and receive is very valuable in this regard, as are the components of appreciation, equality, ease and encouragement. And in terms of stimulating the brain in positive ways, the Thinking Environment is excellent both at calming the amygdala (reducing the likelihood of entering a negative emotional state, such as fight or flight) and also at stimulating fresh thinking, by its use of inviting questions, supported by all the components already mentioned.

But does that mean that meetings in a Thinking Environment will be flat and devoid of humour?  I think not. And further, my experience is that in practice, they are not. There used to be plenty of laughter at Nancy Kline's Collegiate meetings when we were able to meet in person.  Obviously, when it is your turn to talk, you may be as humorous as you like (though flippancy and negative humour that attacks or belittles others has no place).  But more profoundly, I think, the fellowship that develops, and the depth of thinking that is stimulated, both give rise to the kind of good humour that arises from the context: not so much joke-telling (though a joke may be told, almost as an excuse to give expression to the good humour) - a laughter that is born of joy.


With thanks to Brooke Cagle, Priscilla Du Preez, and Christina @ for sharing their photography on Unsplash


  1. I couldn't agree more. My understanding is that TI means to not interrupt, with anything. Being humorous is one thing. Being humorous and emotionally intelligent is better.

  2. Yes; it is significant that Nancy Kline's latest book is called: The Promise that Changes Everything: I Won't Interrupt You. So interruptive humour (which is one way it can lack emotional intelligence) is absolutely inappropriate in a Thinking Environment.