Sunday 16 October 2022

Neurodiversity and the Thinking Environment

Some time ago, I was introducing the idea of listening without interruption to a group of professors on a Professorial Leadership course.  I invited them to spend a few minutes at their tables taking turns to listen to each other think out loud about the questions: Who am I? and What do I want these colleagues to understand about me? - and to listen without interrupting or asking questions, but rather with real attention dedicated to the person speaking.

Overall, it worked well; most reported that it was a much better way of getting to know each other at the start of the programme than their usual experience; however, one professor told me that it didn't work well for her and wouldn't for other neurodiverse people. But time was against me having a further conversation with that professor at the time, and to my shame, I didn't follow it up later, so never knew precisely what she meant.

However, more recently,  I have been working more closely with someone who identifies as neurodiverse, and specifically as having ADHD; and I have also been talking with other Thinking Environment practitioners about their experience, and have some initial findings, which I share as much to provoke comment (and further learning for me) as to offer some clues to other practitioners with regard to some issues to consider.  These relate specifically to people with ADHD, not other neurodiverse people who will have a range of other issues worthy of consideration.

The first thing is that two of our favourite questions can be overwhelming; and in both cases that is because they are multiple questions.  Of course, when that was pointed out to me, I remembered from my early days of being trained in sales, and then working as a sales trainer myself, that we always tried to avoid multiple questions. Yet in a Thinking Environment, these two are often very productive:

What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?

What more do you think... or feel... or want to say?

I understand why we use these questions and why they often work; but it is worth considering if we should - at least for some people - separate them out.

Another question that can be overwhelming is: What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal? (and all its variants).  In that case, it is the range of possibilities that is overwhelming; so whilst the question remains a good one, it can be helpful to preface it with permission to find it difficult: 'the next question I am going to ask you may feel a bit overwhelming; so take your time, and relax into it, and then answer when you are ready...'

For the role of Thinking Partner, the requirement to memorise the thinker's exact words (in order to build an Incisive Question, using  the further session goal and the limiting assumption) can be very challenging too, for some people with ADHD. It may be appropriate to flex our usual expectation of no note-taking in that very specific circumstance.

Further, some people with ADHD have felt excluded and marginalised by their previous experience of meetings and interviews, which may undermine their confidence and make them particularly worried that they may be starting with a deficit, so appreciation and self-appreciation are valuable.  

The good news is that some people with ADHD have reported the experience of the Thinking Environment as being very positive indeed. 'I felt smart, and welcomed, for practically the first time!'

I continue to think and enquire about this: if you have any relevant thoughts, feelings or experiences, please get in touch.  You can leave a comment here, email me, or use any of the contact details on my website.


  1. Hi Andrew. Interesting to read your thoughts. No methodology or approach will work for everyone all the time. And if a question doesn't work for someone, then it's good to adapt, I like your suggesting of perhaps splitting the opening question into two questions. The aspect of TE that might also challenge some people is the eye contact. What are your thoughts on this? (Felicity)

    1. Hi Felicity, good to see you again this morning on the SOF session! And you are right, of course, that being flexible in our approach is key. I've certainly heard anecdotally that eye contact may be a difficulty for some people; though I have not had a participant on any of my workshops say that. So my view is uninformed; but what I'd say is that I'd be interested to discuss with each individual on a personal basis what would work for them in terms of demonstrating interest and attention of the highest order, if eye contact is not the way to do it for them.