How to Lead a Thinking Group: 3 Tips to Achieve Breakthroughs

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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Are the meetings or classes you lead designed to elicit productive thinking? What can you do to boost creativity and problem-solving?

Nancy Kline has a step-by-step process for taking on the role of the listener to help someone else engage in higher-quality thinking, resulting in ideas that lead to powerful action. Her process can be adapted for group settings such as work meetings, family conferences, or classroom discussions.

Continue reading to learn how to lead a thinking group that gets results.

How to Lead a Thinking Group

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, such as 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. Kline shares three strategies for facilitating an effective thinking group.

Thinking Groups in Remote Settings

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many organizations began holding group meetings remotely via video conferencing applications like Zoom. Remote meetings have a different dynamic than in-person meetings because it takes more concentration to focus on video meetings and it’s more difficult to pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, among other things. This takes a toll on meeting participants and their engagement, a phenomenon that experts call Zoom fatigue. It can have a particularly limiting impact on problem-solving processes like Kline’s thinking session because of the high level of engagement and energy that these require.

If you participate in or run virtual meetings, be aware of how the remote setting impacts your meetings and consider scheduling shorter, more flexible meetings with plenty of breaks to prevent fatigue.

Tip #1: Start With the Positive

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.

(Shortform note: Research shows the importance of appreciation in group settings: The greatest factor in employee engagement is feeling that employers care about their wellbeing and success. Beginning a meeting with appreciation and maintaining it consistently establishes these positive effects early and helps everyone feel more valued and comfortable.)

Tip #2: Hear From Everyone

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 coaching sessions work best in smaller groups of around 12 or fewer.

(Shortform note: The average workplace meeting has about 18 participants, which can make turn-taking difficult. Others suggest that meetings even smaller than those that Kline recommends are ideal, with some recommending meetings with nine or fewer participants and others noting that virtual meetings are most efficient with four or fewer participants.)

Tip #3: Split Into Smaller Groups for Reflection

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.

(Shortform note: The smaller group discussion format can also be adapted for virtual meetings using breakout rooms, or you can allow participants to brainstorm silently about the group’s limiting assumptions and add their ideas to a shared document. Additionally, in the classroom, research shows that the small group discussion is a more effective (and more popular) teaching method than the lecture, particularly when students come to the discussion well-prepared. Using this knowledge, you might consider asking your meeting participants to work on identifying some limiting assumptions in advance so they can come ready to discuss them with their peers.)

How to Lead a Thinking Group: 3 Tips to Achieve Breakthroughs

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nancy Kline's "Time to Think" at Shortform.

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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