How to Create a Thinking Partnership: The 6-Step Session

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 you have a thinking partner? How does a thinking partnership work?

In her book Time to Think, Nancy Kline presents a step-by-step process for taking on the role of the listener to help someone else engage in higher-quality thinking. The exciting result is the generation and sharing of great ideas that lead to powerful action.

Keep reading to learn how to create a thinking partnership by using Kline’s six-step thinking session format.

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 in the thinking partnership is to be the listener—paying 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.

(Shortform note: While setting goals will take some time, try not to get stuck on this step, as it can cause the thinker to fixate on their current state of not having achieved the goal. Feeling like there’s still a lot of work to do can actually be discouraging if they’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about this issue, so this may be a good time to remind them that you’re there to help them get to a solution. This makes it especially important to come up with a succinct goal so the speaker doesn’t feel like they have a huge, elaborate goal to reach.)

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).

(Shortform note: Showing appreciation can be difficult, particularly in the workplace, because most of us do it so rarely that we haven’t built up the skills to do it well. However, research shows that it improves the mood of the person receiving the appreciation, as well as having physical and mental health benefits for the person giving the appreciation. Expressing appreciation for others also helps build trust, rapport, and a good reputation.)

Exercise: Be Your Own Thinking Partner

While Kline’s thinking session process is designed for pairs or groups, you may find yourself in a situation where you need to think through something without help from others. Try adapting Kline’s process to use as an individual.

  1. Begin by explaining everything you think about the problem or topic you’re dealing with. Pretend you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know anything about it, and give yourself the same encouraging, open attention you’d give to another person. You may want to speak into a recording device or write your thoughts down so you can refer back to them as you go.
  2. Once you’ve fully exhausted your ideas, decide what you want to accomplish next (your goal for the thinking session).
  3. Next, identify what’s standing in the way of accomplishing this goal. What assumption is blocking your progress?
  4. Use Kline’s formula to turn your assumption into an incisive question: “If I knew,” plus the liberating assumption, plus “how would I [approach the situation]?” Write this down since you don’t have a thinking partner to memorize it for you, and then ask yourself this question until you’ve said absolutely everything you can think of.
  5. As with the partnered and group processes, end your individual session with appreciation. Identify something you like about yourself and say it out loud so you finish your session feeling encouraged and positive.
How to Create a Thinking Partnership: The 6-Step Session

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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, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books 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 creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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