Time to Think

Listening to Ignite the Human Mind

Harness the power of thought in yourself and others.

Have you ever found yourself in a sea of people, yet felt singled out because someone was giving you their complete attention?

The late Diana, Princess of Wales, was a master at creating this sensation in others, embodying a concept we’ll refer to as the Thinking Environment. Her presence would ease anxiety, making individuals feel valued and important. She had the rare talent of shifting the focus onto others, even when surrounded by a crowd gathered to see her.

Why does this matter? The quality of our actions is intrinsically linked to the thinking we do beforehand, which is shaped by the level of attention we receive from others. Be it in organizations, families, or personal relationships, cultivating a Thinking Environment can stimulate a wealth of good ideas, propel action, and ensure that individuals flourish.

So, how do you foster such an environment? It requires a blend of undivided attention, questioning that challenges limiting beliefs, and creating conditions that encourage independent thought.

In this Summary, we’ll delve into these aspects in depth and explore the realm of the Thinking Environment. Here, you’ll learn how to hone your listening, questioning, and appreciating skills to unlock your thinking potential, and that of others.

The Thinking Environment

There are ten key conditions for establishing a Thinking Environment, but let’s concentrate on three of its fundamental pillars –⁠ Attention, Incisive Questions, and Appreciation.

The quality of your attention directly influences the quality of another person’s thinking. This fact is pivotal. Good attention brings out the best in others, making them articulate and creative. Conversely, poor attention can cause them to stumble and struggle.

A common example of this is when people share their problems, we often jump to offering solutions. We assume that’s what they’re looking for. But how often does the other person actually implement your advice? Or perhaps they did, but it didn’t resolve the situation to their complete satisfaction?

It’s generally more beneficial to give people the chance to use their own cognitive abilities to find a solution. After all, the mind wrestling with a problem is usually also capable of discovering its solution. And the solution they find themselves is one they’ll be more likely to implement.

So, rather than rushing to give advice, provide people with the space to explore their own thoughts first. By simply listening and asking questions like, “What else could you consider?” or “What else do you think?” you can help them unearth new ideas and viewpoints.

When conversing with someone, it’s also crucial to resist the urge to interrupt or complete their sentences. This suppresses their creativity and robs them of the chance to fully express themselves. And remember to maintain eye contact. It’s a potent way to demonstrate your full attention and presence, affirming that the other person’s ideas are important.

Another key element of the Thinking Environment is Incisive Questions. Incisive Questions aim to dismantle limiting assumptions –⁠ those negative beliefs that obstruct our thought process –⁠ and inspire fresh thinking.

Let’s consider a scenario: You’re reluctant to approach your boss, Neil, fearing that he’ll dismiss your ideas as foolish. Beneath that fear, you uncover a deeper assumption: the belief that you might genuinely be inadequate or foolish. This kind of limiting assumption curbs your actions and potential, stopping you from pursuing what you want or need.

Now, let’s think about how to handle such a situation. A well-intentioned colleague might tell you to simply disregard Neil’s potential reaction and assert yourself. But this advice doesn’t effectively tackle your limiting assumption, and hence, doesn’t motivate you to change your behavior.

An Incisive Question, on the other hand, can be transformative. It encourages you to reassess your limiting assumption, engage with a more empowering belief, and explore new possibilities. For instance, replacing the limiting assumption of being foolish with the liberating assumption of being intelligent can be achieved by posing the question, “If you knew that you were intelligent, how would you approach Neil?”

Lastly, for the third condition of a Thinking Environment, let’s consider Appreciation, which significantly impacts a person’s capacity for independent thought. Genuine praise enables people to think for themselves far more effectively than constant criticism.

To this end, strive to maintain a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism in your interactions. And when delivering criticism, always start and end on positive notes. Focus not on every flaw you can identify but on the main one that, if addressed, would lead to significant improvement. This approach ensures that the critique is perceived as a constructive suggestion and makes the person much more likely to make a change.

To enhance thinking in your surroundings more broadly, simple, sincere appreciation can go a long way. Take a moment to recognize the positives in others and express them honestly. Try it out today. Think of someone you admire or appreciate, someone you may not have openly praised for a while, or ever. Choose some words to express your admiration –⁠ and then tell them! Repeat this act on a weekly basis, ensuring your words are genuine and heartfelt.

By practicing the principles of Attention, Incisive Questions, and Appreciation, we can all assist ourselves and others in uncovering innovative ideas, removing limiting assumptions, and maintaining a positive mindset.

Improving organizational thinking

Every single day, we’re influenced by the choices made by a range of organizations. Whether they’re companies, schools, or governments, they decide everything from how we work to what we eat and even what we spend our money on. The decisions they make are a direct reflection of the quality of thinking within them. And the quality of thinking is, in turn, shaped by how the group members treat each other when they’re in the process of decision-making.

Let’s consider team meetings. They’re the heart of group thinking in any organization. Making sure that these meetings act as a cradle for nurturing thought –⁠ a Thinking Environment –⁠ can be a secret superpower.

It starts by making sure everyone in the meeting gets a chance to speak. This part is crucial, because all too often, it’s only the quickest and most vocal people who dominate meetings. That means a lot of good ideas go unsaid –⁠ or even unthought! After all, people think when they speak. Denying them a turn to speak, then, denies them a turn to think.

So, open every meeting by going around the room and asking everyone what’s currently going well in their work. This creates a feel-good base from which to tackle any problems that may arise later. When the time comes to discuss the first item on the agenda, let everyone have a go at it. Make sure that everyone gets to have their say without any interruption. This approach will boost group intelligence and allow ideas to flow more freely and rapidly.

The same principles can supercharge brainstorming sessions. Allowing each person to contribute their ideas in turn before opening up the floor can lead to more innovative and unique ideas. Incorporating pair discussions, where pairs bounce ideas off each other, can also unearth hidden gems. It all boils down to this: When people are allowed to express their thoughts without interruption, creativity blooms naturally.

Now, when it comes to handling difficult conversations between two people, a technique called Timed Talks can be a game-changer. The rules are simple. Each person gets an uninterrupted three-minute window to express their thoughts, while the other listens respectfully. As soon as one person’s three minutes are up, they must stop talking, even if they’re mid-word. Repeat, taking turns for three minutes each until a solution or stopping point is reached. This method can be used in personal discussions as well as professional ones. It can also be used in positive situations in which you’re looking to come up with a creative solution or solve an interesting problem!

Overall, the focus for organizations should be on fostering a collaborative and non-competitive atmosphere in which everyone’s brilliance shines through.

The Power of Deliberate Contemplation

Do you ever catch yourself reacting impulsively, without much consideration? Or perhaps, you’re stuck in a state of inaction, unsure of what to think or do?

The antidote to both these dilemmas is a bi-weekly Deliberate Contemplation Session. This is a half-hour slot dedicated to tackling a specific issue in your life. Paradoxically, while it may seem like an additional task on your to-do list, these sessions can be a real time-saver, helping you shift your perspective or move from inaction to a more productive approach.

A Deliberate Contemplation Session involves two participants – the Contemplator and the Contemplation Companion. The session unfolds in six stages.

It kicks off with the Contemplation Companion asking the Contemplator a straightforward question: “What would you like to contemplate?” The Contemplator responds, delving deep into their thoughts without any interruption from the Companion.

When the Contemplator appears to have exhausted their thoughts, the Companion gently probes, “Is there anything more you think, feel, or wish to express about this?” This gentle push often uncovers additional layers of thought. It encourages the Contemplator to move away from the idea that their sharing time should be restricted or their thoughts are insignificant.

The session then transitions to the second stage, where the Companion asks the Contemplator what they hope to achieve from the session at this point. This refocuses their contemplation, instills optimism, and assists the Contemplator in prioritizing their thoughts. The Companion must pay close attention to the Contemplator’s response, as the rest of the session depends on this clarity.

In the third stage, the Companion encourages the Contemplator to uncover the fundamental assumptions that might be hindering their goal. This exploration often demands patience and further probing. Once the assumption is identified, the Contemplator is asked to articulate its positive counterpart. This could be a shift from “I have no control over my life” to “I am the only one who can control my life.” This inversion allows for a wider range of actions and possibilities.

The fourth stage involves the Companion crafting an Insightful Question by merging the Contemplator’s goal and their positive assumption. This might sound something like, “If you knew that you were the only one who can control your life, what would you do differently?” The Companion should repeat this question until the Contemplator has exhausted all potential actions. This serves to dismantle barriers and propel the Contemplator towards their session goal.

In the fifth stage, the Contemplator records the Insightful Question verbatim. This serves as a reference for future use, as often the same question can be instrumental in different scenarios. It’s also a good time for the Contemplator to jot down any action plans that emerged from the session.

Finally, in the sixth stage, the session concludes on a positive note, with both partners expressing their appreciation for each other’s qualities. It’s important to focus on personal attributes rather than the session’s content, to maintain an atmosphere of respect and positivity. For example, don’t say “Your ideas were excellent.” Instead, say “I admire your resilience in facing challenges.”

In essence, a Deliberate Contemplation Session is a space for unhurried, clear, and transformative thought, paving the way for effective problem-solving.

Cultivating Contemplative Environments Everywhere

Imagine a world where every space is a Contemplative Environment. Individuals feel empowered to express their ideas wherever they go, confident that they’ll be heard and not penalized. Picture the potential that could be unlocked if we all woke up each day knowing that our ideas matter – that our thoughts will be heard. And that we’ll be supported in identifying and discarding limiting beliefs.

Turning everyday spaces into Contemplative Environments may seem like a minor change. But the ripple effects would be enormous, influencing every aspect of our lives. Let’s explore how this could work in a few contexts: schools, families, and romantic relationships.

Transforming schools into Contemplative Environments would foster personal growth and cultivate thinking skills. If you’re an educator, a powerful strategy might be to challenge students by asking for their opinions five times more often than sharing your own.

Another suggestion is to dedicate the last ten minutes of each class to “Contemplative Pair” discussions. Form pairs and allow each person five minutes of uninterrupted speaking time. They should reflect on that day’s learning and also voice any confusion. This practice facilitates learning and cultivates listening skills.

Cultivating a Contemplative Environment within families is also crucial for personal growth and nurturing thinking skills. While it’s impossible to completely protect children from external influences or ensure they’ll always think independently, you can provide them a safe space to explore their own thoughts.

The cornerstone of this process is to refrain from belittling children or underestimating their capabilities. A key aspect is giving them your full attention without haste or dismissal, honoring their ideas no matter how unconventional.

A practical way to instill this practice is through shared evening meals. Begin each meal by having every family member, including the parents, share the highlights and challenges of their day. Ensure each person gets a turn to speak while others actively listen. Then, proceed with usual dinner conversation. The result is often a deeper mutual respect, enriching the family dynamic, and fostering a Contemplative Environment.

Lastly, transforming romantic relationships into Contemplative Environments can lead to profound growth and deeper connection. Start by eliminating interruptions, allowing your partner to explore their thoughts freely. By not finishing their sentences, you’re already on the way to fostering mutual respect and genuine attention.

Also, every evening, adopt a routine of listening to each other’s daily experiences. Be fully attentive and don’t offer unsolicited advice or comments. A rough guideline would be for each partner to have fifteen minutes of uninterrupted speaking time. Giving your partner undivided attention fosters connection and makes them feel valued.

Crucially, allow space for emotional expression without trying to “fix” problems or offer solutions. Today’s society often stigmatizes emotional expression, encouraging repression rather than the natural release of emotions. But suppressing emotions harms our health and obstructs clear thinking. Whether it’s crying, shouting in anger, or shaking in fear, these are natural outlets for emotional release that unblock thinking. So, if your partner expresses emotions, sit with them, listen attentively without panic or over-concern, and they’ll recover and regain their thinking clarity faster.


The influence of a Contemplative Environment is profound. By prioritizing genuine attention, respectful listening, and appreciation, individuals can unlock their full thinking potential and foster personal growth. Creating a Contemplative Environment involves fostering spaces where individuals are encouraged to express their thoughts freely, listened to without interruption, and allowed to voice their emotions naturally, thereby nurturing a culture of deep respect, attention, and enhanced thinking.

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