The 10 components of the Thinking Environment©: A truly inclusive space

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

In my recent blog on how to make the most of our existing diversity, I spoke of creating an environment that invites each person to share their best thinking.  After all, if we’re unable to create this type of environment in the first place, it won’t make much difference whether the group of thinkers is diverse, as we won’t be able to make use of this wealth of varied experiences.

Today I want to introduce you to 5 of the 10 components that, when observed by everyone in a team, create exactly the type of space where the best thinking emerges.  Just imagine the power of that thinking in a team of varied individuals, both in experience and demographic!

The components I’m speaking of are the 10 components of the Thinking Environment, a coaching methodology established by Nancy Kline. As one of Nancy’s ‘disciples’ – by way of my good friend and Thinking Environment guru Jane Adshead-Grant – I have embraced this way of being, both in our team and with our clients.  When we succeed in embodying all 10, we become witness to the best thinking we can generate.  Today, I will share the five components that have the greatest synergies with Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).  They are: (1) Attention, (2) Equality, (3) Appreciation, (4) Encouragement and (5) Difference.

  1. Attention  

Attention is about honouring the person thinking out loud by listening intently, with a level of curiosity that is focused on generating the speaker’s best thinking.  Whether in a group or one-to-one, this requires the listener to quieten down their own internal dialogue that will inevitably pipe up, either as a reaction to what is being said or as the mind wanders.  In Inclusion terms, this is closest to our Inclusive Behaviours of Empathy and Listening.  The Listening part is obvious – listening to understand, without interruption or an urge to share our own opinions.  Empathy is also important so that we can understand and honour the speaker’s desire to feel psychologically safe in what they are saying.

  1. Equality 

This component is about honouring everyone as an able thinking peer.  Irrespective of background, rank, seniority or maturity, embracing Equality is believing that each person in the room has the ability to think well and to contribute to the conversation.  This is particularly difficult to embrace when there is a stark difference between people’s roles, e.g., an intern in a group of experienced professionals.  Chances are, if the group has not embraced this component, the intern is unlikely to speak up and share their thinking.  This might seem acceptable for some, but it will not be acceptable to an inclusive leader who aims to tap into the diverse thinking of every person in the room.

Equality is also about having sufficient empathy to recognise that others in the room also wish to contribute, and to therefore curb one’s contribution to an equal amount of speaking time.   Every person in the room should get an equal amount of time to speak, irrespective of their level of seniority, age, or any other perceived hierarchy.

  1. Appreciation  

As a 2013 HBR article famously claimed, the higher the ratio of positive to negative feedback, the more motivated, engaged and committed we are. This is as true in working situations as it is in our personal relationships.  This is the power of Appreciation: showing another what we believe is good about them has the power of opening their mind and making them think better.  It also has the added potential of highlighting an attribute in someone of which they may not have been aware.

In Inclusion terms, appreciating someone’s inclusive behaviour encourages more of these behaviours.  We might, for instance, interject in a meeting to appreciate someone making space for someone else to speak or calling out a biased assumption or bias.  We sometimes even use appointed Appreciation Monitors whose role it is to keep their eyes and ears open for inclusive behaviours which they are tasked to recognise out loud.   In addition, when we embrace the Appreciation component, our mind actively listens out for positive encouragements and attributes which we may not have noticed otherwise.  For this reason, this component is a powerful motivator to think freely and openly.

  1. Encouragement 

The term ‘encouragement’ means helping someone find courage.  In this context, it is helping another find the courage to think boldly, to go to the unexplored edge of thinking.  This can only be done in an environment that is psychologically safe.  Encouragement, therefore, is a way of establishing psychological safety and hence, also, Inclusion.  One might do so by silently showing interest in what the other is saying, or quietly saying ‘go on, I’m interested to hear your perspective’.  Or by stating at the outset that we welcome a challenge and have an interest in hearing what we perhaps have missed.  Any gesture that makes the other person feel unworried about what others might think of their opinions or, worse, what they might do as a result, is a valuable way to encourage good thinking.

  1. Difference  

One might argue that the main point of creating an inclusive environment is so that we can uncover the most innovative, creative, insightful thinking.   This can only be achieved if we truly value each other’s difference.  This component, therefore, is about not just acknowledging that we can be very different, it is positively welcoming our differences.  If we understand that each person has travelled a path that can be vastly different from ours, we can honour them as a peer.  As a result, they might reward us with an ingenious contribution or insight of their own.  That is why we say Diversity is the reward for Inclusion.

We know that the biggest impact on our thinking is how we are treated.  So creating a Thinking Environment for our colleagues and teams is creating a space where they feel they belong, and are valued and respected as thinking peers.  This is what the 10 components endeavour to create.  Of course, embodying all 10 components – even all 5 – at all times is a tall order.  But if we focus on even just one, this will drastically improve the contribution from our colleagues.  And given that better thinking leads to better actions, perhaps it’s not too much to ask?

Which of these components will you embrace for your future interactions with colleagues?