All posts by cdv

Head of Organisational Development at University of Kent. Change Academy 2011 member.

Do Our Assumptions Limit Us?

By Cindy Vallance

The tenth and final principle by Nancy Kline to build a thinking environment is about the power of asking INCISIVE QUESTIONS.

We all make assumptions. We couldn’t get through a day without them. But do we limit ourselves with our assumptions or do we expand our own range of possibilities and help others to do so through the power of positive assumptions?

An illustration:

Person A  I would like to share an idea I have with my line manager but I can’t.

Person B Why not?

A I believe s/he will laugh at me.

B What are you assuming to believe s/he will laugh at you?

A I am assuming s/he will think my idea is stupid.

B Why are you assuming s/he will think your idea is stupid?

A I am assuming I am stupid.

This is usually when the questioner might say something like ‘Of course you aren’t stupid. Go talk to your manager!’ And we may or may not take this advice and talk to our manager.

But what if Person B said instead:

B Do you really think it is true that you are stupid?

A Well no…

B What are your reasons for not thinking you are stupid?

A Because I (person fills in the blank)…

B What would you have to assume instead for you to share your idea with your line manager?

A I would have to assume I am intelligent.

B So if you knew that you are intelligent, how would you take that step to share your idea?

A I would simply talk with him/her. My manager might not agree with my idea but I would certainly feel like I was making an effort worth taking seriously. 

Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that the manager won’t laugh at Person A’s idea. But if that is the case the person suggesting the idea can still walk away knowing they have genuinely made the effort. They could also use the opportunity for a further discussion. And, on the other hand, just think what positive results might occur if the manager did support the idea and what opportunities would be missed if the idea had never been shared?

A health warning on incisive questions. They don’t work by stealth. The two people engaged in this type of exchange need to both agree up front that they want to have this kind of conversation and that it is okay to question the other’s assumptions. If this agreement doesn’t happen the questioner can come across as either overly aggressive or attempting to practice amateur psychoanalysis, neither which is useful. But when two people are both willing to try it out, testing assumptions through incisive questions can be very powerful.


The Importance of Place

By Cindy Vallance

PLACE is the 9th of Nancy Kline’s principles for a thinking environment. What does a place need to offer to help us think? In her book, she compares two locations – a boiler/storage room used as a meeting room and a sleek designer spec office tower conference room. Which was better? In these instances, for her, the answer was neither. Why?

From boiler room

The reality was that it wasn’t just the appearance of the space that was important. It was the sense in these instances that the people didn’t matter – form over function at two ends of the spectrum.


to Boardroom?

The reality is that we may or may not have very much control over the physical space we inhabit – especially at work.  But when others come into our ‘space’ what can we do with what we have available to us to show people that they matter so they can think better?

Can we rearrange the tables to make the room for a meeting more welcoming or perhaps more informal? Can we do anything to manage light and temperature to ensure optimal comfort for them? Can we simply offer a cup of coffee, tea or a glass of water to welcome the person to our space?

We think better when we feel respected and that we matter. Place counts.


Truth in Diversity

By Cindy Vallance

For many reasons I personally shy away from the concept of ‘truth.’ The world is too complex and my subjective perspectives based on my own life experiences too particularly individual to make a claim on truth.

But Nancy Kline’s 8th principle for a thinking environment holds strong appeal to me. DIVERSITY. She asserts that diversity enhances thinking because it is true. The opposite of diversity – homogeneity – assumes we are all alike and thus underestimates or even denies our differences.

If we assume, however, that diversity is true, then we no longer will assume that the dominant group is superior, that everyone should emulate it and that power should accrue to it. We will hunger for diversity, we will seek it and we will appreciate it for what it is – truth.

So how do we fight our own inherent prejudices? Since we are talking about thinking as equals, let’s consider the prejudice of intellectual superiority. Next time you are in a diverse group, ask yourself:

“If I knew that the people whom I have been pre-conditioned or taught to believe are less intelligent than I am are actually bright and able to think well about any subject of their choice, how would I feel and behave when I hear them think? And how would I regard them as my listeners when it is their turn to hear me think?”

 Welcoming difference and accepting the truth of diversity is essential to thinking well.

Information Exchange – Timing Counts

By Cindy Vallance

Principle 7 to develop a thinking environment is INFORMATION. There is no question that information is power, you get what you measure, and that evidence based decision making requires the right information at the right time. As Nancy Kline puts it “withholding information from someone is an act of intellectual imperialism” while conversely, “not bothering to seek information is an act of intellectual recklessness.”

However, one challenge is to strike the right timing balance when it comes to information exchange. What should we think about if we want to get the timing right?

Firstly, resist the urge to interrupt a speaker midstream. How do you really know what the other person is about to say unless you allow them to finish providing the information they wish to convey?

But what if they are misinformed? Shouldn’t you jump right in to correct them? If you are truly trying to support them to think, the answer may be ‘not yet.’ Think about your goal – do you want to show them they don’t know as much as you do or do you genuinely want to work with them to be a thinking equal? That doesn’t mean being irresponsible by withholding information, it simply means getting the timing right.

Secondly, think about timing when asking for information. Sometimes just listening will bring you the answers you need. If your goal is to help someone else to think then don’t ask them a question when they are in the middle of a stream of thought. Wait, pay attention and really listen.


Fear of Feelings

By Cindy Vallance

When was the last time you or someone else referenced FEELINGS (principle 6 to develop a thinking environment) within a work context? When someone is upset, for instance, or angry, we will likely be most comfortable if we can make this demonstration of feelings stop – and the quicker the better. Maybe we think it will take too much time or that we have lost control if our feelings show. That is certainly what society seems to tell us. Just pull yourself together we think. But as much as we may wish we could because of this sense that feelings at work aren’t appropriate, none of us can leave our feelings behind when we walk through that door.

For instance, we can’t think well if we are upset. But if we repress the outward demonstration of our feelings too quickly, that doesn’t mean we have stopped having them. We have just pushed them inward – and we still won’t be able to think well.

Perhaps we should be a little less afraid of feelings – for ourselves and for others.

Try this when someone next shows their feelings – especially if they are the ones that make us most uncomfortable – anger, grief, despair, sadness. Sit with them, don’t panic, pay attention without smothering them with our concern, and let them find their way back. They will then think more clearly.

Competition Kills Encouragement

By Cindy Vallance

The title of this blog comes directly from Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think” in which she outlines the fifth of the ten principles needed to build a thinking environment. ENCOURAGEMENT is a powerful tool. Encouragement provides a rich field for acknowledging interdependencies and for celebrating successes. Its opposite, competition, pits people and ideas against each other in a never-ending battle to be the ‘best.’ However, competition often only results in ‘better than’ not ‘best” and this result really may not be very good at all.

Competition is one of the qualities that prevents us from asking the questions that should be asked and that no one wants to ask. Encouragement, on the other hand, sets us up to find good ideas together.

How much encouragement do we give to others to share their ideas? How excited do we get about their ideas? Do we listen without competition, without turning away, without interrupting, without shaking our head or rolling our eyes?

Encouragement is the scaffolding, the support structure, that helps new and creative ideas to develop. These ideas can then be implemented for the benefit of all of those who are daring enough to think together.

Appreciation is not about being nice

By Cindy Vallance

APPRECIATION is the fourth principle that we need to develop to have a thinking environment. Nancy Kline suggests practicing a ratio of 5:1 appreciation to criticism when it comes to our interactions with others if we want them to think for themselves. How many of us get anywhere near that ratio?

Appreciation is not just about saying thank you – and even thank you isn’t really appreciation if it isn’t sincere and specific.

However, we work in an environment of debate and criticism. This isn’t a bad thing – we need to constantly question what appear to be facts to progress our thinking about a host of subjects and ideas. However, we can also take this to extremes. In general, being critical in our society can often be seen as equivalent to demonstrating intellect and therefore being positive becomes its opposite – naïveté or simplistic generalisation. But you don’t have to agree with someone to appreciate them and you don’t even have to like them.

Appreciation is not about empty flattery. People are smart enough to see right through this. Appreciation should be “genuine, succinct and concrete.” It should also be timely so don’t wait too long to express it. And it should also be direct. Why does it sometimes seem that when we do hear something positive it comes to us second-hand? Like any kind of feedback, appreciation is best expressed directly to the person to whom it is meant for.

And when someone expresses appreciation, do accept it, don’t dismiss it. Just say thanks. This response demonstrates you aren’t undermining their opinion or judgment and it will help you both develop a healthy thinking environment.


Is ease possible in a climate of urgency?

By Cindy Vallance

I have recently written about the first two principles highlighted in Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think.” The principle that follows on from ATTENTION and EQUALITY is that of EASE. Ease – this sounds like something we might make time for during an evening or at the weekend – if at all…and certainly not anything we have time for when we are at work. However, I have certainly heard people, myself included, say to others, “I am so busy, I just don’t seem to have the time to think.”

But isn’t it the “doing” that produces results? Yes – and the results we achieve are wholly dependent on the thinking that has preceded the doing. How can we achieve ease of thinking for ourselves and others?

A small way to practice ease is when someone approaches us, whether for an impromptu check in or a scheduled meeting where some thinking is required, focus on them. Not your watch or your to do list. Don’t tap your fingers or fidget (physically or metaphorically) or appear ready to spring up and dart away. Tell the person up front how much time you have; for instance “I have five minutes before my next meeting but during that time I am all yours.” If you really don’t have five minutes, perhaps it is best to find another time. If you create a climate of ease for them they will be able to think more clearly. And hopefully, they will return the favour to help you think.


Equality – so much more than compliance

By Cindy Vallance

Following on from the first of Nancy Kline’s ten principles for a thinking environment, ATTENTION is followed by EQUALITY. In this context Equality goes far beyond the public sector duties and legislative requirements that are part of the Equality Act, as important as these are. EQUALITY here means treating each other as ‘thinking peers.’ It is possible to treat people as equals as thinkers even in a hierarchy. There is often a tendency within organisations to believe that the higher people are in a hierarchy, the better people can think. This is simply not true.

Within the Change Academy initiative, we have discovered, with every conversation that takes place and every activity we take forward, that the perspectives of students, academic staff and professional services staff combine to provide a greater breadth of positive ideas and perspectives than any of us could come up with by working only with those in similar roles or at the same levels as ourselves. How do we do this on a practical level?

Firstly, in your meetings, (effective in smallish meetings of no more than 12), try giving everyone equal turns and attention since knowing everyone will have a turn improves the quality of everyone’s attention. If possible, try doing this at the beginning and end of each meeting. One example in Nancy Kline’s book described how someone in one organisation asks at the beginning of each meeting with her team, “What have you noticed that needs attention or change in this area that I might not have noticed? And then, “What do you think should be done about it?” She ensures everyone has a chance to respond without interruption, only asking questions to clarify, not to challenge or defend herself.  And she promises to think about each idea. And she follows through. Not by promising to do everything suggested but by letting her staff know what she decides to do with each person’s ideas and why. This takes time but her view is that it saves time overall because ideas have come forward she never would have thought of and overall, the commitment and engagement of her entire team have increased. They know that their thinking matters and that it makes a difference.

Nancy Kline states “Respect is the hallmark of a thinking environment. Equality is its base.”

Listening is a radical act


Cindy Vallance

In my last post, I promised to share some thoughts from a class I attended as a result of the Change Academy. The Thinking Environment master class brought together a mix of University staff across a range of institutions and staff type – academic and professional services, to consider how we can have more productive meetings, solve business problems, create strategies and build stronger relationships. Sounds good? Of course? Simple? Yes. Easy? Not at all.

The principles from the class are built on the writings of Nancy Kline, and as would be expected, there are ten core principles (she states in her book she’d welcome an eleventh so if you think of another, let her know).  

For this posting, I’m going to focus on just the first, and the most powerful. ATTENTION. “Thinking for yourself is the thing on which everything else depends.” I often tell people that one thing I enjoy about working at a University is working with people who think for a living. Academic staff member, professional service staff member, or student – ideas are the lifeblood of a University. But when we are all so busy, when do we actually find time to think? And what is the quality of our thinking? Is it possible for us to help each other to think? And if it is, how would we go about it?

How do we feel when we truly feel listened to? A sampling of responses from those who attended the class include:

I am more likely to solve challenges, share, and give more

I feel more confident

It clarifies my thoughts in my own mind

I feel validated and worthwhile

I feel a better connection with the listener

But listening can be a radical act, especially when we are so often in a hurry. When was the last time someone asked you, “What do you think, what do you really think?” And then waited for you to answer at length and in detail?  

We think we listen but we don’t. We finish each others’ sentences, we interrupt, we wait to begin our own story or response, we get ready to share our advice and expertise, we look at our watches, or we walk away. What if we listened with full ATTENTION, giving every ounce of our energy, not to what we will say next, but to what the other person is saying?

People are often interrupted after speaking for 90 seconds or less. How much quality thinking can happen in 90 seconds? Why do we interrupt? My idea is better than yours; if I don’t speak now I will never get a word in edgewise; I know what you are about to say; interrupting will save time; nothing about your idea will improve with further elaboration.

The reality is that we will often be wrong if we assume we know what someone will say next. An example, from Nancy Kline’s book illustrated this. One person began “I don’t know what to do about Larry. As his manager, I think we should recommend that we fire”… and then she stopped mid-sentence. Nancy Kline waited three seconds and was about to say “Larry” when the person said “up his imagination and natural talent a bit more.” A radically different response – especially for Larry!

So, if you do nothing else, if you read no more, if you decide you’re not interested in nine other ways to create a thinking environment…start practicing this one and next time someone speaks, simply pay rapt ATTENTION, don’t interrupt, don’t think of your response, just really listen.