The Thinking Environment ®

In the words of Nancy Kline, who has devoted her working life to understanding what it takes for a person or group to be able to do their best, sustained, independent thinking:

“The quality of decisions and actions groups take depends on the quality of the thinking they do first. And the quality of our thinking depends on how we are being treated by the people who are with us.”

“The Thinking Environment is the set of ten conditions under which human beings can think for themselves – with rigor, imagination, courage and grace.”

“The Thinking Environment is not just a set of techniques. It is a way of being in the world.”

These resources support my certified ‘Time to Think’ courses. They’re also for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their meetings or conversations, or to do their own breakthrough thinking.


The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment


Listening without interruption and with interest in where the person will go next in their thinking


Regarding each other as thinking peers, giving equal time to think


Discarding internal urgency


Noticing what is good and saying it


Welcoming the release of emotion


Giving courage to go to the unexplored edge of thinking by ceasing competition as thinkers


Supplying facts, recognising social context, dismantling denial


Championing our inherent diversity of identity and thought

Incisive questions

Freeing the human mind of an untrue assumption lived as true


Producing a physical environment that says ‘You matter’

Transforming meetings

“To be interrupted is not good.  To get lucky and not be interrupted is better.  But to know you will not be interrupted enables you truly to think for yourself.”

(Nancy Kline)

Holding meetings in a Thinking Environment will reliably increase the ability of everyone present to do their best thinking – ensuring everyone’s full contribution, removing limiting assumptions that block creativity and problem-solving, improving decision-making, building relationships and saving time.

The best way to achieve this is to learn the Thinking Environment approach together, and to put it into practice in real time on topics that are important to the team or group.  However, putting any of the tips suggested below into practice will improve the quality of thinking in any meeting.  If practised persistently, over time they will change the working culture of the team.

  • Ask ‘Do we need a meeting?’  Be sure the meeting is necessary, and that it requires people’s thinking.  If it doesn’t, don’t hold the meeting (find another way to accomplish the task).
  • Turn all agenda items into questions.  The mind thinks better in the presence of a question.
  • In the meeting, everyone matters.  Design meetings to get the full contribution of everyone’s thinking.  If you don’t need their thinking, don’t invite them.
  • No interrupting.  Make a group commitment that you will never interrupt when someone else is speaking.  The balancing commitment is to be succinct. 
  • Listen with full attention.  Ask the group to commit to listening with full attention when someone else is speaking, not waiting for your turn, or preparing what you will say.  This is made easier by the rule of ‘no interrupting’ and by instituting rounds, so that everyone knows they will get their turn to speak without interruption.  It’s easiest to keep your attention on the speaker and not be distracted if you keep your eyes on their eyes.
  • Use rounds to ensure equality, and to promote diversity of thought.  Make sure everyone speaks within the first five minutes.  Do this as a round, where everyone speaks in turn.  Begin and end meetings with a positive round, eg What do you think is going well in this project/in the team?  What’s one thing that is going well for you right now?  What have you appreciated in this meeting, or what has been achieved through our conversation?  This discipline is particularly valuable when difficult topics are discussed, or where there is conflict.  Rounds can also be used throughout the meeting to ensure you get input from everyone on specific questions, when discussion gets stuck, or when individuals dominate.  After prolonged discussion, consider asking What’s your freshest thinking now? Or Where are you now in your thinking?
  • Uncover limiting assumptions.  When discussion gets stuck or the group can’t see a way forward, ask What are we assuming here that might be blocking us?  Do this as a round.
  • Teach the 10 components.  Consider a light touch introduction, depending on how receptive the group is.  You might want to focus on fewer at first, particularly Attention, Equality, Diversity, and Appreciation.  Remember to practice these yourself, becoming a Thinking Environment for others.
  • No devices.  Establish agreement that electronic devices are on silent, and out of sight for the duration of the meeting.  New research suggests cognitive performance is reduced by the presence of devices in the room, and further reduced if they are within sight.
  • Minimise the use of PowerPoint.  PowerPoint sucks attention from the speaker. Use it only when essential, such as presenting visual content.

Seven steps to transforming virtual meetings
The Thinking Council

“When everyone thinks for themselves and listens well to everyone else, everyone’s thinking improves.”

(Nancy Kline)

The Thinking Council is designed to enable you to access the wisdom of a group of people, to help you think about and solve problems that concern you.  It offers a way for people to offer what they know, without telling you what to think or what to do. 

It is based on the principles and practice of the Thinking Environment, developed by Nancy Kline.  It is not necessary for members of the group to be ‘experts’ in the topic you present.  When consulted in this way, people are generally able to access experience and knowledge that is valuable to the thinker.

It is important for Thinking Council members to have at least some understanding of the Ten Components of the Thinking Environment, particularly Attention, Ease, Equality, Diversity and Appreciation, and to have been introduced to the principles of taking turns in a Round, listening with full generative attention, and not interrupting.

As well as the person presenting the issue, there should be a Facilitator and a Scribe.  (Facilitator and Scribe may also participate in the Thinking Council.)  The Facilitator is responsible for managing the process, setting the tone by modelling the Ten Components of the Thinking Environment, and intervening if needed to ensure the Presenter is not being implicitly or explicitly told what to think or do, or if the group needs guidance.

The process

  1. Presentation (5-10 minutes):  The Presenter presents their issue in such a way that the Council hears everything the Presenter thinks they need to know, but without too much back story.  The topic should be real, live and sufficiently complex that the Presenter has not been able to solve it by themselves. 
  2. Formulating a question:  The Facilitator asks the Presenter to formulate the question they want the Council to address.  The question should be sufficiently succinct to focus the thinking of the Council most effectively.  If necessary, the Facilitator can ask the Presenter to put their question in fewer words.
  3. Clarifying round:  A brief round (process to be managed by the Facilitator) in which anyone can ask a clarifying question to ensure they have understood the Presenter’s question.  Care must be taken not to allow coaching questions in this round.  Only clarification of the facts or of understanding of the question are allowed.
  4. Confirmation of the question:  The Facilitator confirms the Presenter’s question, checking that this is still the correct formulation. 
  5. Council thinking time (2 minutes):  The Facilitator gives the Council a couple of minutes to jot down legibly on a piece of paper their initial thoughts.  (These notes will be given to the Presenter at the end of the process.)
  6. Thinking Council Round (20-30 minutes):  In a round (process to be managed by the Facilitator), each member of the Council responds to the Presenter’s question, drawing only on their own experience and knowledge.  They should rigorously avoid coaching, making judgments, diagnosing, advising, recommending or suggesting solutions.  Use sentences that start with or include the words “I”, “me” or “my”.  Avoid sentences that include the word “you”.  Helpful starting phrases include:
    • In my experience …
    • This reminds me of a time when …
    • What I would find challenging would be …
    • When I faced something similar, I …
    • If I was faced with a similar problem, I might try …
    • I remember when I experienced …
    • This made me think about …

During this round, everyone gives full, generative attention to whoever is speaking.  The Presenter listens to all contributions during the round, but is under no obligation to take away or act upon any of the Council’s ideas.  Full ownership of the problem and the solution remains with the Presenter.  The Scribe takes legible notes of each contribution, which will be given to the Presenter at the end of the process.

  • Freshest thinking (5-10 minutes):  The Facilitator asks the Presenter:  What is your freshest thinking now?  The Presenter can say as much or as little as they wish.  They do not have to agree or disagree with anything they have heard, or to say what they are going to do about it, unless they wish to.
  • Appreciation round:  In a round, each Council member names a quality they admire, respect or appreciate in the Presenter.  Appreciation should be succinct, specific and sincere.  The scribe records these appreciations and then gives all notes to the Presenter.
Removing untrue limiting assumptions

When our thinking is blocked or gets stuck, very often the sticking point is an untrue limiting assumption, which is being lived as though it were true.  This is an exercise to help identify key untrue limiting assumptions and to create incisive questions which enable the thinker to get to their goal.

Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, and have paper and pen handy.  Allow up to 30 minutes for this exercise.  If you have a favourite way of focusing or becoming centred, do that first.  Then ask yourself the following questions, allowing yourself time to reflect after each one, but not over-thinking it:

The opening question[1]

  • What step do you want to take in your life right now, that you haven’t yet taken?

Finding the limiting assumption:

  • What are you assuming that’s stopping you from taking that step?
  • What else are you assuming that’s stopping you?
  • And what else?  (Take your time to list all the assumptions you can think of.)
  • Of all of those assumptions, or any others that spring to mind, what are you assuming that’s most stopping you from taking that step?
  • Based on logic, reason or facts, do you think that assumption is true?  What are your reasons?

Substituting an alternative liberating assumption:

  • If your assumption is not true – what are your words for what is true and liberating instead?
  • If your assumption is true –  given that assumption is true, what would you credibly have to assume in order to take the step you want to take?

Incisive questions™:

  • If you knew that (insert your own true or credible assumption here), what would you do in order to take the step you want to take?
  • If you knew that (insert your own true or credible assumption here), how would you feel?
  • If you knew that (insert your own true or credible assumption here), what would change for you?

Removing limiting assumptions and building incisive questions is a key element of working in a Thinking Environment ® and creating Thinking Partnerships.  For more information or training in this work, please contact me by email at [email protected], or by phone on +44 (0) 7766 080265.

[1] You can substitute other questions where you feel that you are blocked in some way from achieving a goal.