Friday 12 January 2024


It happened again, yesterday. Someone I was listening to had a completely new idea about a subject that she had thought about often before. I had done nothing, other than offer her that generative attention which is at the heart of the Thinking Environment approach developed by Nancy Kline and colleagues.

Which causes me to reflect, once more, on a question that arises from time to time: if the coach is just (just!!) going to listen, why can't you just Do It Yourself?  Just think...

And the answer, I think, is that one can; and often with excellent results. But sometimes, having someone else present also makes a difference.

The descriptor Thinking Environment is carefully chosen. Some of what Nancy describes, one can indeed create for oneself. With a little discipline, one can maintain attention on the topic to be thought about (resisting the notifications pinging in on phone and laptop...); one can cultivate that ease that is characterised by a lack of urgency, when one wants to think about an important topic. One can choose a place that is conducive to good thinking (for me, that is often walking the Fells).  And so on.  When one does that, one often sets up the right environment for good thinking, and good thinking results.

So what does a coach, or a thinking partner add to that?

A few things, as I see it. 

One is that it is so easy to interrupt oneself when the thinking gets difficult. That email that needs answering; that other topic to think about that is easier...  Whereas when one is with a thinking partner, with agreed and dedicated time to think, there is some protection from that.

A second is attention. We talk about generative attention; the idea being that if I pay exquisite attention whilst you are thinking, you will actually think better.  Is this voodoo?  I don't think so. I think it is similar in kind to the well-established phenomenon of parallel process. One explanation of this may be found in our developing understanding of mirror neurones, though that is somewhat speculative at this stage. The hypothesis would be that our brains respond to the attention of another  brain in ways that facilitate thinking.

A third is ease. I think the thinking partner's maintaining ease, and more broadly, a psychologically safe space, allows the amygdala more fully to relax: to stop that perpetual scanning for danger; and that allows the brain to focus better on its thinking task. 

A fourth is the questions that a thinking partner may ask. Whilst skilled thinking partners will not interrupt your thinking, if you come to a stop, they may stimulate a new wave by asking an inviting question (What more do you think?...); or use questions to help you to identify the assumptions that you are making, and replace untrue limiting assumptions with true liberating ones.

Finally, I think there is something about thinking out loud that is different from thinking in our head. Partly that is simply that we need to order our thoughts in order to articulate them; and occasionally there's that wonderful moment when we surprise ourselves by what we say and stop short, and question ourselves: do I really think that? But there is even more here, and I think it is to do with being witnessed. Once we have thought out loud in someone else's presence, something is changed. 

So yes, by all means think on your own; and take the time and trouble to set up the best environment in which to do that, if the topic is important. But also recognise that you might get significant benefits from thinking in the presence of someone else, particularly if he or she is skilled in creating and sustaining a Thinking Environment.


With thanks to Harli Marten for sharing this photo on Unsplash.

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