Nancy Kline: Thinking Environment

The powerful belief behind coaching: whether life coaching, corporate coaching, performance coaching or any other sort is simple: If we fully understand the challenge or problem we face, then we can access our own solution to it. Nancy Kline puts it this way:

Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution – often the best one.

Her contribution is to formalise a set of criteria for what she calls (and has trademarked as) a Thinking Environment. These ten conditions at once make  sense: they are both obvious and insightful.

Nancy Kline

[Very] Brief Biography

There is not a lot of information around on Kline, save that she was born in New Mexico and served on the faculty of a Quaker School in Virginia, where she and her first husband set up a satellite institution in 1972. It was there that she started to think deeply about how to create the space to think. She went on, after twelve years, to be a director at the rightwing Leadership Institute. In 1990, she married her second husband, Christopher Spence, and moved to the UK. Shortly afterwards, she set up her consulting and coaching business and wrote her first book, Time to Think, published in 1999.

Kline’s Thinking

It seems to me that the entire burden of Kline’s ideas is supported by one statement:

The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.

This tracks back to her and her colleagues’ observations of teenage students trying to solve their own problems for themselves and it is the the core principle of her attitude to coaching – and of the attitude of many coaches. Her book, Time to Think: Listening to ignite the human mind and her concept of a Thinking EnvironmentⓇ set out ten conditions that create a good environment in which we can think. These conditions are:

  1. Attention
    You need to listen carefully, take an interest in everything you hear, and be respectful of the ideas, beliefs and values that are embedded.
  2. Incisive questions
    In the coaching context, the questions you ask evoke awareness, so your goal is to shake up entrenched patterns of thinking that can create unwarranted limitations.
  3. Equality
    Speaker and listener deserve equal respect, attention, and time, and must maintain their commitments to one another.
  4. Appreciation
    This one reminds me of the Losada and Heaphy paper in 2004 that shows (and the methodology has been criticised) that  five to one ratio of positive to negative comments drives stronger group performance.
  5. Ease
    Creating time, without a feeling of urgency or hurry. Kline sees urgency as a destructive force.
  6. Encouragement
    Beyond the positive sense of this work, Kline also means us to engender a collaborative rather than competitive mindset.
  7. Feelings
    Letting the speaker express and experience their emotions, to release the speaker from their grip.
  8. Information
    Drawing out a complete and, as far as possible, reliable statement of reality.
  9. Place
    Selecting an appropriate physical environment in which we feel fully respected.
  10. Diversity
    Differences create opportunities. Diversity adds value.

Kline’s Offering to Organisations

Kline is clearly a master coach, and her organisation offers a range of training. Her book does not only offer a prescription for how to create an environment where people can think more clearly – and therefore solve problems more effectively. It also contains valuable insights of a range of organisational types. Along the way, what I found most useful, were some of the specific questions she suggests asking others… and ourselves. I would put Kline in a category with another asker of insightful questions, Susan Scott.

Any leader or manager can gain a lot by taking time to think about some of her questions, of which my two favourites are:

What do you really think?

What do we already know now that we are going to find out in a year?

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