Time to Think – review of Nancy Kline’s book

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Create a particular environment and people will think for themselves. It is that simple.’ This statement encapsulates the underlying precepts of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, elaborated in her marvellous book, Time to Think: Listening to ignite the human mind, which has become a classic of non-directive coaching. I make no apologies for beginning this review by saying I love this book. Nancy Kline’s work has made a deep impression on me. I am in awe of the powerful effect that concentrated, empathetic listening – what Kline terms ‘listening to ignite the human mind’ – can have in releasing ideas and insights from the person being listened to. As Kline says, ‘the quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking’. It sounds beautifully simple.

The kind of listening that Kline advocates (and indeed, practices, as I have been lucky enough to witness) can quickly generate astounding results. Yet is not necessarily simple to put into practice. Many of us equate giving advice and information with looking professional, so listening of the calibre integral to a true thinking environment effectively means unlearning much of our professional training. It means not interrupting, not interposing our own conclusions, not judging. It also involves stripping away, or at least setting aside, our own ego, to focus on the person we’re listening to, giving them the attention, ease and encouragement they need to think freely. These are three of the ten components Kline identifies as necessary in a thinking environment. The others are: incisive questions; equality; appreciation; feelings; information; place; and diversity.

As Kline shows in her book, establishing a Thinking Environment can yield great results anywhere, from companies to public sector organisations, to schools and even the home. In a coaching context, the impact of incisive questions, crafted carefully, can be magical. These questions are based on painstaking research on what exact phrasing and even tense works most effectively in prompting the mind to think at its best, and are designed to remove the underlying assumptions that limit our progress and replace them with positive beliefs that leave the way clear for us to identify solutions. Questions such as ‘If you knew that you are as intelligent as your bosses, how would you present yourself to them?’ allow new, creative, authentic ideas to fizz and bubble past the mental barriers that usually suppress them.

The approach described in Time to Think is surprisingly systematic, which means that is practically applicable. At its heart though, it is based on an unswerving faith in the power of people’s thinking. This power can be liberated in a supportive space that offers the thinker (who can, of course, be a coaching client) an engaged listener (who can be a coach) as well as the unrushed time, permission and expectation that the thinker will explore their situation at their own pace, to produce their own, meaningful answers. I’m just grateful that Nancy has written two more books, More Time to Think: The power of independent thinking, and Living with Time to Think: The goddaughter letters, which I’m very much looking forward to reading.

by Liz Gooster