Friday 23 April 2021

The Thinking Council

This week I completed the final part of my practicum and have been duly qualified as a Thinking Environment Facilitator.  That has involved both written work (I did a piece on the relationship between the Thinking Environment and Emotional Intelligence, building on previous blog posts which my loyal reader will doubtless remember) and also practical work: running a number of workshops on the application of Thinking Environment principles to facilitation, as well as both chairing and facilitating meetings according to those principles and practices.

In all of that, the part that has proved hardest, in practice, has been the Thinking Council. The idea of a Thinking Council is to enable someone who is facing a challenge of some sort to pick his or her colleagues' brains, without being given a load of advice. Those who know Nancy Kline, or understand her work well, will appreciate that this is predicated on keeping the individual (in this case the person presenting the challenge) thinking independently, rather than relying on others' thinking.

So the process is that the challenge-holder (hereafter 'presenter') presents the challenge to a group of colleagues or friends, in the form of a question. After an initial round of clarification of the question (not interrogating the challenge, as that will be never-ending...) each participant is invited to share an experience from his or her past that, in some way, speaks to the challenge. One colleague also volunteers to take notes, so that the presenter can listen with that exquisite attention that is the hallmark of a Thinking Environment.

And of course, that's where it gets difficult to facilitate. Because however clearly one explains the purpose and the process, people's tendency is to offer advice; sometimes advice disguised as a question, and sometimes advice disguised as an anecdote. But the problem with advice is that it is likely to be either accepted or rejected (and that may be more to do with the temperament of the presenter, the relationship, and perceptions of wisdom etc than the quality or relevance of the advice itself...) - and in either case, that is less stimulating of genuine independent thinking.

So what I am trying to do, is to get people to notice the advice that they are tempted to give; and then to look behind it, to think about the experiences that inform that advice, and share one of those experiences instead; without adding (implicitly) '... and the moral of this story is...' In that way, I hope, the presenter will be able to consider the anecdote, and draw whatever learning is appropriate from it.

For completeness, the final stages of the process are the presenter feeding back what he or she is taking from the process and is going to do as a result; and then (this being a thinking environment) some appreciation of the presenter by all present.

One of the participants on one of my workshops pointed out how similar this process is to Action Learning; and indeed it is. It is noteworthy that both Reg Revans and Nancy Kline draw on the Quaker tradition to inform their work.

However, there are also differences: one is that the focus in Action Learning (at least as Reg Revans established it) is on group members asking insightful questions, to help the problem owner think differently about the issue and gain new insights (and these questions are answered in the presence of the group); whereas in the Council, experience and ideas are shared (normally prohibited in Action Learning) and any questions are taken away, not answered in live time. I think Nancy’s view is that this maintains the independence of the thinker better (though one could question that).

Another difference is that a Thinking Council is a one-off event for the benefit of one individual; whereas Action Learning is typically a series of meetings at which each participant presents and receives help. In Action Learning, there is quite a strong emphasis on reporting back on actions taken at second and subsequent meetings; there is no such requirement in the Council, and I think that is because it could be seen as infantilising, and therefore diminishing of the individual’s freedom to think independently.  Action Learning is designed as a long-term learning process (as well as a way to work on difficult issues) whilst the Thinking Council is designed to help someone to think better about an immediate issue in the short term.

As you will gather, my thinking and practice here is very much work in progress: I may well blog further on this as I learn more.


With thanks to Christina @ and Leon for sharing their photography on Unsplash

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