Nancy Kline’s Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Time to Think" by Nancy Kline. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do certain people help you think through things more thoroughly and accurately? Do you feel more creative and productive in particular environments?

Nancy Kline’s Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind explains that what and how we think determines everything we do and say. Kline argues that, when people listen to us well, they help us think more effectively.

Continue reading for an overview of this book that takes a novel approach to both thinking and listening.

Overview of Nancy Kline’s Time to Think

Nancy Kline’s Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind argues that, by improving your thinking, you can improve every facet of your life, from work to family to relationships and even things like political engagement. By listening well to others, we can encourage them to engage in higher-quality thought and action. And, when others listen well to us, they can encourage the same in us. Kline describes a step-by-step process for taking on the role of the listener to help someone else engage in higher-quality thinking, resulting in the generation and sharing of great ideas that lead to powerful action.

Kline is a teacher and researcher, as well as the co-founder of the Thornton Friends School in Maryland and director of the Time to Think leadership and coaching company. She’s also the author of nearly a dozen books, including The Promise That Changes Everything, More Time to Think, and Living With Time to Think.

We’ll explain how high-quality thinking comes from high-quality listening, and we’ll explore Kline’s six-step process for a productive one-on-one thinking session from the perspective of the listener. We’ll discuss key components of the thinking process, including attention, assumptions, and important questions, and we’ll look at how the process can be adapted for a group setting. Finally, we’ll note some characteristics of a productive thinking environment.

Good Thinking Comes From Good Listening

According to Kline, all our actions are dependent on the thinking that precedes them. Further, our thinking is dependent on how well others listen to us. Her research on students showed that, while factors like age, IQ, and experience had little impact on the students’ thinking, the attention that others paid them had a significant impact. Therefore, she reasoned, we can teach people to think well. And, in order to teach people to think well, people have to learn how to listen well to each other. She used this insight as a foundation for studying how to elicit good thinking from others by paying attention to them and treating them well.

The Thinking Session Process in Six Steps

The key to evoking high-quality thinking in others is to listen to them well. Kline provides a step-by-step process for conducting a productive conversation, or a thinking session, which maximizes the quality of both listening and thinking. You can employ such a session any time you want to help someone else think well, whether they’re attempting to solve a difficult problem at work, weighing their options regarding an important health decision, seeking to improve their relationships with others, brainstorming ideas for a creative project, or approaching any other situation that requires thinking. Similarly, if you need help thinking well, simply reverse the roles in the process listed below and have someone else listen to you.

Step 1: Listen Attentively for as Long as the Thinker Needs

The first step in the thinking session process is to give the thinker the opportunity to say everything that’s on their mind. Kline explains that your job as the listener is to pay attention as the thinker spells out everything about the topic they’re pondering. 

As a listener, begin by asking them what they think about the issue. Then, after they tell you what they think, ask them what else they think about it. Continue asking this until the thinker is certain they’ve said everything they want to say, then double-check this by asking “Are you sure?” before moving on to the next step.

According to Kline, the reason listening works so well for producing high-quality thinking in others is that, when someone identifies a problem, the solution is usually buried somewhere in their mind. The purpose of discussing an issue with someone to help them solve it isn’t to give them your ideas or decide what you should do for them. It’s to provide an environment that prompts them to uncover the solution themselves.

Because of this, Step 1 may be all that’s necessary in a thinking session. Steps 2 through 6 are only needed if the thinker doesn’t come across the solution during Step 1.

The Importance of Attention

Throughout the thinking session—but particularly during Step 1—your attention to the thinker is paramount, explains Kline. Your role is to give the thinker time and space in which to think, so you should listen quietly for the entirety of Step 1.

Unfortunately, most of us were brought up to believe that good listening involves paraphrasing what the other person said and adding our own thoughts as often as possible. Kline argues that these behaviors limit the other person’s thinking. She adds that paraphrasing the other person’s words doesn’t actually indicate that you were listening well—in fact, it shows you weren’t listening well enough to remember exactly what they said. According to Kline, the thinker’s wording and phrasing are the best: those exact words are the ones that are the most meaningful to the thinker and the most compatible with how their brain works because they’re infused with the thinker’s background, knowledge, and experience.

Interrupting the speaker to finish their sentence is also a bad idea, according to Kline. This behavior shows the thinker that you think your words are just as good or better at conveying what they think, and it also shows impatience, which stifles good thinking. Because thinking requires time, there may be long stretches of time where the thinker is silent, but this still doesn’t mean you should interject your thoughts or try to prompt the thinker to continue. They’re using that time to process, and once they’re ready to continue, they’ll do so with greater understanding.

Show Attention Through Eye Contact and Facial Expressions

Kline also asserts that you should maintain eye contact with the thinker the entire time they’re talking. The thinker’s eyes may wander, but yours must stay on theirs, and your expression should remain one of polite interest. Kline does note that there are some cultures where eye contact is seen as disrespectful, so you should adapt her system to fit your culture and the culture of those participating in the conversation.

Let the Thinker Feel

Additionally, don’t try to avoid or quash the thinker’s feelings as they talk. While society has taught us that thinking and feeling are mutually incompatible, explains Kline, the reverse is actually true: Stifling emotions stifles thinking. In particular, crying is a natural physiological release that calms the mind and body and relieves pain. Allow the thinker to feel and express their emotions however they need so they can pursue their thoughts freely.

If you reach the end of the first step, the thinker has said absolutely everything they want to say, and they haven’t uncovered the solution to their problem, you can move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Set a Goal for the Thinking Session

The second step in the thinking session process is to have the thinker identify what they want to accomplish during the remainder of the session. Encourage the thinker to state their goal clearly and succinctly, then memorize their goal in the same exact words. This will help you stay close to their original thinking as you proceed through the next steps.

This step is encouraging to the thinker: After exhausting their pool of ideas during Step 1, it can feel like there’s no chance of arriving at a solution and they should just give up. Setting a goal reminds them that there’s still plenty to be done before they throw in the towel.

Kline explains that they may need to think about their session goal for several minutes, during which you should wait patiently. They’re using this time to organize their thoughts and make a plan for the rest of the session.

Step 3: Identify Assumptions That Limit Thinking

The third step in the thinking session process is to identify the roadblocks that are currently preventing the thinker from achieving their goal. Kline explains that these roadblocks take the form of limiting assumptions, or beliefs that the thinker holds that curtail their ability to identify or implement the best course of action. There are three types of limiting assumptions:

  • Facts. These are statements of reality. For example, if the thinker is a college student who wishes their class had more hands-on activities, one of their assumptions about why they can’t change that might be, “I am not the professor.” That’s an objective, true statement. 
  • Conjectures. These are assumptions of things that might happen. For example, if the thinker is a stay-at-home parent who wants to rejoin the workforce but is worried about missing out on time with their family, their conjecture-based limiting assumption could be, “My family will resent me for not being around as much.”
  • Core assumptions. These are fundamental beliefs that we’re often unaware of but that impact the way we think about the world. For example, if the thinker is having trouble talking to their partner about difficulties in their relationship, their bedrock assumption might be, “My needs are less important than keeping the peace in the relationship.”

To identify the thinker’s main limiting assumption, take the goal they expressed in Step 2 and ask them what they’re assuming that prevents them from achieving this goal. Once they pin down their assumption, memorize it word for word.

Again, your job as the listener is not to identify the assumption for the thinker, but to provide the setting for them to uncover it themselves, explains Kline. You may feel like you know what their limiting assumption is, and that therefore you know what the solution to their problem is. However, if you misidentify their assumption, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll offer them a solution that clashes with their actual limiting assumption, making your solution seem useless and discouraging.

Once the thinker has identified their goal and their main limiting assumption, you can move on to Step 4.

Step 4: Ask an Incisive Question … and Then Keep Asking

The fourth step in the thinking session process is to ask the thinker an incisive question that challenges their limiting assumption. According to Kline, this is a very specific question that’s based on the statements they’ve made about their goal and assumption (which is why it’s so important to memorize those). This question replaces the thinker’s limiting assumption with an assumption that frees their thinking, and as with the other aspects of the thinking process, it needs to be identified by the thinker. 

To help the thinker identify their liberating assumption, ask them what the converse of their limiting assumption is. Do not try to identify this for them. Again, the thinker chooses their specific words for a reason, because those words are more meaningful to them than any other phrasing would be. Always use the thinker’s words rather than your own.

For example, if the thinker wants to pursue a career change but they’re afraid to try, and their limiting assumption is “It’s not okay to fail,” your first thought might be that the liberating assumption would be “It’s okay to fail.” But if you ask the thinker what the converse of “It’s not okay to fail” is, they might instead say “Failing helps you grow.” So then, using their words, incorporate that converse assumption directly into your incisive question: “If you knew that failing helps you grow, how would you go about changing your career?”

Note that simply saying “That’s not true” won’t dispel a limiting assumption. To you as an outsider, the core assumption “My spouse might leave me if I am honest with them” may seem absurd. But, to the thinker, it’s a very real threat. It’s important that you take it seriously and not dismiss their feelings.

Once you’ve identified the assumption, work with the thinker to create an incisive question. Use the following formula: “If you knew,” plus [the liberating assumption] (which we’ll discuss shortly), plus “how would you [go about reaching your goal]?” Then ask the thinker the question and listen to their response, says Kline. As with Step 1, you should pay close attention and not interrupt, even when the thinker is quiet for a long time. After they answer the question, ask it again. Allow them to answer, and then ask yet again. While the question remains the same, the thinker will continue to generate new ideas on each occasion. Continue to ask the question until the thinker is certain they’ve answered it fully. When they’re out of ideas, you can move on to Step 5.

Step 5: Write Down the Incisive Question

The fifth step of the thinking session process is simple: Have the thinker write down the incisive question they’ve identified, verbatim. You might find that they struggle to remember it precisely, so make sure you help them get it exactly right. Even though you’ve asked them the question several times already, it’s easy to forget once they leave the session, so they need to write it down so they can refer back to it as they continue working on their issue.

Step 6: Appreciate Each Other

The sixth step in the thinking session process is to express appreciation so that both the thinker and the listener leave the session feeling positive about themselves and what happened. This appreciation shouldn’t focus on what you talked about in the session—meaning, the listener shouldn’t say “You did a great job generating ideas”—but should instead be a statement about what you respect about the other person, such as “I admire your teamwork skills” or “I appreciate your attention to detail.” Then when you receive appreciation from the thinker, don’t resist or argue with it. Simply say “Thank you.”

If you do this, at the end of the session, the thinker will leave feeling empowered about their problem and with many new ideas and possible solutions, and the listener will feel satisfied and encouraged about the work they did (and they’re also likely to have learned a lot along the way).

Thinking in Larger Groups

As individuals, our thinking determines the majority of our actions. However, many of the circumstances of our lives are determined by the decisions of groups of people, like our corporate leaders determining our job responsibilities or our government representatives determining our rights with little to no input from us. To elicit the best problem-solving processes, it’s essential that these groups engage in the highest-quality thinking possible. The above process is designed for a one-on-one thinking session, but it can also be adapted for group settings like work meetings, family conferences, or classroom discussions.

In group situations, Kline emphasizes that you must highlight the positive before addressing the negative, or the thing that needs to be improved (if improvement is the goal of the session). This means showing a lot of appreciation for each other and discussing what’s going well for everyone both at the beginning of the meeting and at the end. She says you should strive for a five-to-one appreciation-to-criticism ratio.

Taking Turns

The group setting means more turn-taking. Kline stresses that everyone must have a chance to share whatever they’re thinking, without interruption or contradiction. For this reason, group thinking sessions work best in smaller groups of around 12 or less.

Allow Everyone to Reflect by Splitting Into Smaller Groups

As in the one-on-one sessions, the goal of group sessions is to identify limiting assumptions and replace them with liberating ones. The group can regularly reflect on these as a whole, but you can also divide the participants into smaller groups or pairs to ponder the assumptions that might be limiting the group’s thinking and the questions that would liberate their thinking. These small-group discussions should be timed at about five minutes per person in the small group to maintain the flow of the meeting. After the small group discussion, go around the room and let each person share what they thought about.

Characteristics of a Thinking Environment

Attention, limiting assumptions, and incisive questions are all aspects of the thinking environment that are directly incorporated into the thinking session process. However, other characteristics also impact how conducive a space is to good thinking. 

Diversity and Equality

Good thinking occurs best in a setting that’s reflective of reality, explains Kline, and diversity is reflective of reality. The world doesn’t consist of just one type of person, so your thinking space should be filled with different kinds of people. Additionally, everyone should be on equal footing, with no one considered superior to anyone else—even if some people are higher up in the organization’s hierarchy. While people may have different responsibilities, everyone can be a brilliant thinker, and everyone should be given an equal opportunity to employ their brilliance.

Relaxed Atmosphere

According to Kline, thinking spaces should have a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere that communicates to thinkers that they can take their time to do their best thinking. Many business executives believe that conveying urgency gets better results from their employees or group members, and some groups even fabricate a sense of urgency deliberately to get these results. But this only leads to greater stress and less effective thinking.

Cooperation, Not Competition

Finally, your thinking environment needs to be one that encourages cooperation over competition. Kline explains that our society tends to exalt competition as the key to progress. However, in reality, competition doesn’t guarantee that anything we do or create will actually be good: It only means our creation will be better than something else. Competition obstructs thinking because it drives us not to do well, but just to do better than others. And by limiting our thinking to what others are already thinking, Kline says, we close ourselves off to a wide range of possibilities.

Nancy Kline’s Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind

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Here's what you'll find in our full Time to Think summary:

  • That what and how we think determines everything we do
  • Why the quality of your thinking depends on how well you listen to others
  • A step-by-step process for taking on the role of the listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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