Getting people to really think ... how do you do that?

Getting people to really think ... how do you do that?

Or ... what do tennis balls and compliments have in common? To give the answer immediately: they help you think! How? Recently, a client asked me to deliver an important workshop following the principles of 'The Thinking Environment'. You will remember: the high-profile book 'Time to think' by Nancy Kline, whose main message is "we are all equal as thinkers".

According to Nancy Kline, there are 10 components that enable people to give their best during the thinking process. Her most important assumption is that there is a clear link between the quality of listening and the quality of thinking: when you are really listened to, the quality of your thinking process improves. So what is that, real listening? Giving your full attention to the speaker, allowing the other enough time to finish her/his story, in an atmosphere of appreciation, peace and calmness, encouraging the other person to continue their thinking process, allowing emotions and, when blocked, asking questions that help remove limiting assumptions. In other words, putting your own ego and all competition aside for a moment and allowing the other person plenty of space and opportunity and success.

But how do you do that in a highly hierarchical and competitive environment? In a meeting room with 20 strong men and women with a lot of 'horse power'? A simple tennis ball did much of the work: After each issue, we let the ball pass the round. Whoever had the ball was talking. You could see people calmly holding the ball in their hands, turning and groping while thinking and carefully choosing their words. The other participants could quietly remain silent and listen. They knew that the ball would also pass through their hands. Without having to explain much to people who were not familiar with the theory of 'Thinking Environment' and this method of meeting, the ball made the rules of the game visually clear very quickly. People did sometimes fall back into old habits of interrupting each other but also corrected themselves.

After each chapter, I invited participants to list what they appreciated about their neighbour and their contribution and to express this as a group. After all, Nancy Kline speaks of a 1:5 relationship (to every critical statement comes 5 appreciative statements). Even though this was unusual and sometimes uncomfortable at the start, each time you felt the temperature in the room rise and the quality of the relationships between them increase.

In any case, I really enjoyed many moments in this workshop and will definitely continue to apply it. Or, to put it in the words of Nancy Kline: "Do not be fooled by the simplicity of this process!"

We use the Thinking Environment techniques, among other things, in all our facilitation and coaching assignments.


Leadership is the ability to mobilise the various talents within a group or organisation in order to achieve ambitious, but real results. Effective leadership can be developed by providing the right tools to analyse current leadership strengths and by giving support and coaching.
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