The Thinking Environment: an essay
Creating a Thinking Environment ™ is based on 10 components. These components are behaviours that work to create an environment conducive to generative, energising and soul-nourishing thinking.
What are these behaviours?
Three years ago I went to a coaching workshop to see if I wanted to do a coaching qualification. We had to do an exercise where we “listened like a stone”. We were instructed to sit with our faces open and warm towards the speaker and simply listen. I had never done this before. I did it. The person talked. They talked some more. They went silent. They began again. They said things I didn’t expect them to say. Half the time they said the opposite of what I thought they were going to say. The person I did it with cried.
I then talked whilst he listened. The pure attention was like balm to the soul. I knew I wasn’t going to be interrupted. It was generative and illuminating. I didn’t rely on or expect the other’s input, so I thought for myself instead.
I decided to become a coach that night. I’ve learnt to listen for a living. I watch my clients’ faces as they think. I wait and see where they go next before adding my own thoughts.
It has been transformative.
I’m also now beginning to apply the concept of attention to also paying attention to the world: to the view from my window, nature as I walk down the street, the sounds of children playing in the playground as I work, the feelings in my body when I get upset.
Attention keeps you in the present.
And therefore you are open and free.
A whole company meeting. Twelve people from the “bottom” to the “top”. They are arranged on my screen in little boxes. I explain I am going to ask questions and we will go round answering them so that everyone gets a chance to talk. Every single person. I set up a virtual table. I can see the more extrovert people leaning forward eagerly. I can see the more junior people look slightly apprehensive. We go round asking various questions from personal information-sharing ones to deeply strategic whole-company ones. Some of the people present are never asked these sorts of questions.
The quieter ones are slower to get going but then find their rhythm. The more overtly knowledgeable, experienced ones look apprehensive then mildly astonished and then incredibly pleased as they hear people speak who don’t normally speak.
The whole company comes together that day. Each individual is given an equal platform.
Afterwards when we reflect on the process the most junior person speaks: “ I’ve never spoken up before. To be honest I’ve never actually been in the room before. I now belong to this company.” The CEO speaks: “ You are this company. I now know we are all this company. Our thinking makes this company. I feel lighter”.
I feel lighter too when I apply this personally. If I am equal to the person in the street, If I am equal to my partner, if I am equal to my client: what happens? There is less competition. Less burden. Less need to prove myself. I am listening more. I am lighter too.
Before each coaching session I hold I start with my body. How does it feel? How am I holding it? How am I breathing? Sometimes I have a knot in my stomach, my face is constricted, my throat a little clamped, my breathing is shallow.
I breath through my nose. I smooth my face. I loosen my neck. That knot is pretty hard to budge but I nod at it and imagine it liquid.
I then begin the session. I observe the fluster in my client. The darting of the eyes. The wriggling of the body.
We breath together.
Then we really begin.
Ease begets a slower sense of time. A slower sense of time creates depth. Depth creates better thinking. Better thinking creates decisions, actions and intentions. The ease creates results. Slow down to speed up.
Research shows that the perfect ratio for appreciation to criticism is 5:1.
Five times more appreciation than criticism to enable better thinking, healthy communication and a sense of energy and peace. People will then receive that one bit of constructive criticism more readily.
So when I work with founders or teams I weave in appreciation. One thing I always do is to get them to appreciate each other at the end. A quality in the person in front of them that they admire. Some love it and go in with gusto. Others squirm. They do it anyway under my (easeful) eye. It releases good feelings into the room. It opens up the human side of business at the end of potentially difficult, intellectually over-stimulating meeting. It soothes. And makes things right with the world. I believe people then leave relaxed and thinking well of themselves and others. This in turn drives them to action: to implement what has been discussed in the meeting.
I do this all the time even when I think we don’t have time or people will respond with horror. I know the power of doing it.
I struggle to do it in my personal life. 5:1 appreciation with my husband! 5:1 appreciation with myself!
It doesn’t come naturally to me. What stops me?
I commit now to living this component. I’ll let you know the results.
“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be”.
What happens if we let people go as far as they can in their thinking instead of rushing into to tell them what we think, what we know is better, what they should do? If instead we sit back and “know” they have the potential to create their own thinking, their own actions, their own lives.
How do we do this? We encourage. We look into the future with them and see the possibilities. We let their minds go there themselves on their own path as opposed to dragging them on our own paths.
I worked closely with two brothers. Two co-founders of an amazing brand. At the beginning I explained the Thinking Environment to them. I explained the principles of equality ( no younger and older brother here), attention ( no interrupting as if around the family table) and encouragement( watch with fascination as your brother surpasses himself). They did it. They watched each other. They listened. They both blossomed. And they blossomed into themselves. They lovingly cut their own path in their company not one predestined by their brotherly relations. They became their own people, no competition, no telling each other how they should behave.
As one brother said to the other brother at the end of our coaching. “I am now the champion of the future you. And you are my champion.”
When one of my children cried I used to rush to stop him or her. When they expressed anger I rushed to quell it.
About five years ago someone told me this didn’t work. I was just repressing and therefore lengthening the feeling. It would seep out or rage out anyway. I was also lengthening their inability to think clearly.
They told me to name it instead. You’re sad. You’re really angry. The first time I did it they looked a little startled. They then accepted my comments. Accepted their feelings. They calmed themselves. They began to think again.
I once sat with my daughter for five minutes in silence whilst she cried. She then stopped, told me her solution and then thanked me for giving such great advice. I hadn’t said anything.
I’m learning to do this more and more with clients too. Quietly naming what I can see happening. There is often silence. Then release. Then better thinking.
The last person to learn it with is myself. To notice my ingrained reaction to instantly take action when angry or scared, to distract myself when sad: to run from the feeling. Instead I am learning to honour this component of the thinking environment myself. Feel. I didn’t realise how much energy it took to distract myself from my own feelings. How much it clouded my judgement and thought processes.
It is unbelievably energy-giving to actually just feel. To be present.
At the beginning of each client session-whether 1:1, a team or a workshop- I place them. Placement means I tell them what we are going to do, I set the timing, I tell them about breaks, I ask them what they want to do, I explain how I’ll follow up. The placement may begin a numbers of days beforehand as well: a sharing of crucial information, an agenda composed of questions, an explanation of what to expect on the day.
Placement is the anchor. It provides psychological safety for all participants. When they have that safety they are free to think well and deeply.
The safety it provides goes a level deeper beyond me just setting the agenda and sense of time. Do we have all the information needed to make crucial decisions? What is missing? Is the context recognised? What needs to be aired? I ask myself and my clients these questions so I know we are setting sail with a ship with a working engine and a lifeboat. We are then free to be creative, explore, let loose.
Information provides the solid core and the structure to the Thinking Environment. This allows fluidity, openness and flexibility, and most importantly truth.
Everyone is different. Gender. Age. Colour. Personality. Upbringing. Class. That is reality.
Let’s go back to equality, encouragement and attention. If we recognise the true value behind these components why would assigning greater power to any group/type create something better? Why would not having all voices at the table and paying attention and encouraging each of them not be anything but a good thing?
Invite everyone to the table. Do that actively. Test your own assumptions and biases. Do that again and again. Observe your own surprise when thinking from someone different to you creates better, cutting-edge thinking. Be honest with yourself.
Commit to increasing and celebrating difference. You will be committing to increasing higher quality thinking, and therefore higher quality results.
A higher quality world.
Take a belief and wind it back to an assumption. Ask if it is true. Watch the assumption wither. Replace it with an alternative liberating assumption in the form of a question. Watch the energy flow.
If I knew I am truly capable how would I approach business growth?
If I knew that I deserve success, what would I do right now?
If I knew my needs matter how would I organise my home life?
If I knew others are responsible for themselves what would I do for myself today?
If I knew that I’m good enough what goals would I set myself?
If you knew I am as valuable as my board how would I approach our meetings?
These are a mix of mine and clients’ incisive questions. They are magical and creative and release energy. In a heartbeat they help people change perspective and begin to think for their true selves.
They take the Thinking Environment to a higher level.
If I facilitate a meeting with a senior team and it takes place in the same room they always meet in I know we are doomed, that we will struggle to create change. The CEO will head to his position at the top of the table and everything will unfold as it is always does: a hierarchy as opposed to a meeting of minds.
Shift location to get a different perspective.
And for the everyday meetings including those important senior team ones ensure it’s a nice welcoming environment. Tweak it. And change your positioning from time to time.
For my own part I am planning to build an office at the bottom of my garden for in-person work. It will have large glass doors giving onto a little patch of wild flowers. It will have a round wooden table for meetings. It will have an large embroidery by one of my favourite artists on one wall. It will have a little coffee and tea area with beautiful mugs and nice beans.
It will say you matter to my clients( and to me when I’m working alone).
It will allow people to relax and think at their best.
And then we’ll get the best results.