I met Mitzi Wyman a few years ago when I was working in the city. Mitzi organised a round table event that I went along to. I left that event in a very different state, compared to when I entered the building. I felt calm and grounded. Mitzi uses tools and techniques from the Thinking Environment, pioneered by Nancy Kline.
My experience of the Thinking Environment is that it’s an inclusive way of being able to conduct meetings and events, which is what led to this interview. I started by asking about Mitzi’s quite mixed background and what led her to work within the Thinking Environment?
‘I started as a lawyer, working in the City, but I always had an interest in people, culture and organisations. I went off and I studied organisational psychiatry and psychology. I trained as a coach, doing leadership development for several years across sectors. Several years ago, I came across Nancy Kline’s work, her fabulous book Time to Think, and the follow-up More Time to Think. Nancy crystallised what made a difference when we want to engage people, particularly when wanting to have inclusive environments where people can say what they really think and others actually listen.’
Nancy Kline and the Thinking Environment
‘Nancy’s work spoke to me. I felt liberated because it was as if this was something I always knew. Nancy Kline says herself it’s a discovery from observation, not tools and technique she’s designed. When I work with executives and coach them, they’re always saying, they wish they had time and space to think. The ironic thing is they want the thing that they don’t give because they’re so busy demanding stuff from their teams, people are always demanding things quickly, and that addiction to urgency and certainty and adrenaline that they don’t realise that they’re colluding in us all being hurried, rather than being able to slow down and think.
Nancy explores that and many people find it speaks to them as it does to me. Once they start to work in this way, they find they don’t want to go back to the approach where everything is a rush and has to be done yesterday. We talk about replacing that addiction to urgency and the adrenaline, and certainty and control, replacing urgency, certainty and control with respect and ease and interest. That’s when you start to have much better decision-making and much better thinking.
When people know that you’re interested in what they have to say, when you treat them as an equal, someone who can contribute something valuable, rather than looking at status or hierarchy or their background or the colour of their skin or whatever. When you truly see someone as an equal and listen to them in that way, then what happens is you get the wisdom, the compassion and the courage in the room that’s needed if we’re to deal with the challenges facing society. So it makes a difference for that individual, for the team, for the organisation, and society at large.’
I asked Mitzi to explain a bit more about what the Thinking Environment tools and techniques are and how they are applied.
‘It’s a hard thing to explain to people. To quote Nancy Kline, “The quality of everything we do begins with the quality of the thinking we do first, and that depends on how we treat each other when we’re thinking.”’
Tools for More Inclusive Meetings
Mitzi says, ‘What usually happens in meetings is that two or three people dominate. It might be that they’re extroverts, or because they are the most senior people. Others are sitting on the sidelines sometimes not knowing whether they can speak up, or when they do speak up, they’re thinking, “Oh, what am I meant to say? What should I say? What do they expect me to say?” Rather than, “What do I really think?”
What the Thinking Environment does is introduce some tools and techniques that mean that everybody has a say and people listen. For example, we introduce where everybody is invited to speak. Importantly, you can pass in a round in the Thinking Environment, but it means everybody has a say. When everybody has their say, they know they are not going to be interrupted. Everyone knows they’re going to get their turn to speak, so then they can listen to others.
The quality of the listening attention and the equality of knowing you’re going to get your turn, together create ease. That sense of ease and that calmness, that you’ve experienced Toby, allows people to think more productively and cogently than they might otherwise. Usually, they might be thinking, “Oh, God, what am I meant to say? What am I meant to do in this meeting?” which interferes with listening. In a Thinking Environment, we’re getting the best thinking from everybody. There’s the cognitive diversity that difference brings because when everybody has a say, it means that you’re starting to hear voices that you wouldn’t always hear. This can be transformative.’
Transforming Listening and Thinking
As Mitzi said, at her events where we use the Thinking Environment techniques, we sit around a table and one person takes their turn to speak, and we go round the table clockwise. Everyone has their time to speak and there’s no clock. You don’t have, say, one minute to get your point across. The pressure is off because there is the option of saying, “Come back to me later,” or “Pass”.
At Mitzi’s events, I’ve always felt like proper listening happens. Instead of being worried about getting your point across in the moment when the timing feels right for that particular topic, in Thinking Environment rounds, you’ve got time to collect and assemble your thoughts.
‘In most meetings, people zone out what other people are saying because they’re so concerned about remembering the point they want to make and fighting for airtime. Often they are simply relieved that they got their say in. The benefit of the Thinking Environment is that because you’re listening and people are paying attention and you’re getting your turn, it means the quality of the thinking is enhanced because you’re building on each other’s thinking rather than people sort of throwing something in because they’ve suddenly got a gap in the conversation.
That’s hugely important. It’s not only about creating a nice meeting or a comfortable space. It’s about creating the conditions where people can say what they really think and have their say, even if they vehemently disagree with each other. That ease is important as well as people feeling comfortable, welcomed and appreciated.’
Going Beyond the Edge of Thinking
My own experience is that creativity increases. At these events, not only have I left feeling more at ease, I think I left with better ideas. The Thinking Environment creates space for creativity and for ideas to percolate.
Mitzi says this is because, typically, people are interrupted within 20 seconds of speaking. This means few of us rarely get to what she calls the edge of our thinking. Some say that it’s even less than 20 seconds and is getting as short as 11 seconds as people’s attention spans shrink.
Mitzi explained. ‘So we’re starting our thinking aloud and someone interrupts us. What would happen if you were able to think that bit further and further than that, and even further than that, suddenly you find that you’re going into unknown territory. You’re starting to go beyond the edge of your thinking to rediscover the stuff that you know. The wisdom that is inherent in each of us starts to emerge and we start to get those rich contributions, rather than what tends to be that superficial level. Since these days, one of the challenges is we’re constantly interrupted, our attention is being pulled in so many different directions. We’re trying to make decisions based on a superficial understanding of issues rather than having in-depth conversations.’
Thinking in Pairs
Another Thinking Environment technique is to put people into thinking pairs. Mitzi says that anything can pair. ‘You put people in pairs to think about an issue together for, say, 10 minutes, and in a meeting of 12 people, in 10 minutes, you have two or three people dominating and others may be paying attention or not. If you use a thinking pair, in that 10 minutes, you’ve added 50 minutes of thinking to the meeting, because everybody is thinking. Then you come back and have a round where people share their freshest thinking. The sequence is you’ve had a conversation about the issues and done a round, before going deeper into the issues with another question where people think about it in pairs, then return to have another round. In a short space of time, people have gone on a journey where they’ve had time to truly think. What’s key is that it’s been inherently inclusive. Everybody has been invited to participate, and that is what makes the difference.’
Diversity and Inclusion in the Thinking Environment
I asked if Mitzi could expand on other ways in which the Thinking Environment increases inclusivity.
‘There’s a whole specialist piece in the Thinking Environment which looks at diversity. At the heart of most forms of discrimination is a limiting assumption that the people outside of the group with which you identify are in some way superior, and therefore you have to think and act like them to get on. So if you’re the only woman in the group, the only person of colour, and you see in the hierarchy this homogenous group of people who are somehow up there, you can start to think, “Oh, I’m meant to think and act like them to get on”. But that’s fuelling this idea that somehow you cannot think for yourself.
When we talk about the Thinking Environment, what we’re saying is that we can think for ourselves as ourselves, and once we’re able to do that we’re no longer trying to think like the people who hold open that door. What we’re saying by having rounds and equality as thinkers, we’re saying, I want to know what you independently think for yourself, not what you think you are meant to say or what you should say. I don’t want you coming here editing yourself to the way that you think you need to behave to have a seat at this table. It is saying difference in every sense is welcome.’
Mitzi does a lot of work within the leadership space. She’s mentioned to me in the past that leadership needs reinventing. I asked her what she means by that?
‘It builds on the point I made before that we don’t want to have the leadership that we’ve always had. Homogenous leadership where the higher up the organisation you go, the more you have to think like those who are currently at the executive table. That means we’re having the same old ideas being re-hashed. What we need when we talk about redefining leadership is to welcome fresh ideas, knowing that the best ideas can come from anywhere. When we invite people to think independently, we’re igniting thinking and we’re inviting fresh thinking. We start to get people who are different, who have different ideas. That redefines what leadership looks like, simply because as we start to listen to people and acknowledge their talent, skills and their abilities. From that, the composition of the people at the top table starts to change. We’re still at the early part of the 21st century, and we need to redefine leadership. Thinking for yourself at this point is still a radical act. We want to have radical thinking which will redefine what leadership looks like.’
Facilitating the Thinking Environment
I was keen to get some practical tips people can take towards implementing ways of working towards that radical shift Mitzi described.
‘One of the first things they can do is start to have rounds in their meetings. What goes with that is to think about what is the question that drives the round. That means replacing agenda items, which are usually just broad statements, you know, the first agenda item might be this month’s financial figures. Rather than that, it would be, “What are the implications of this month’s figures for the team going forward?” Straightaway by putting your agenda items in the form of questions, you’re inviting someone who would like to start, because, with a round, you only go clockwise or counterclockwise. You ask for a volunteer to start, and then you wait for everybody to have had a say. That alone can transform meetings.
This works incredibly well virtually. I create a virtual circle, I put them around a clock face and let everybody know what order we’re going in so they know when their turn is coming and don’t have to worry about interrupting.’
I’ve used these techniques myself. I’ve changed agenda items into questions and, Mitzi hasn’t paid me any commission for writing this, but it absolutely does work. I asked Mitzi for her thoughts on running meetings as a Thinking Environment.
‘Simple, yes, easy no. It can feel countercultural. You always worry, people won’t like it, or the people who are the most outspoken wouldn’t like it, because it does require those who are very vocal to sit back and listen and for those who are quiet to come forward.
Already that’s good though because it means everybody is engaged. Once you put an agenda item in the form of a question, everyone starts thinking about it straight away. That enhances the quality of the thinking, as coming back to our main point, it means you’re having that inclusivity that we need.’
One of the things to be on the look-out for is you do need a strong chair, because there are people in the meeting who forget that you’re conducting the meeting in rounds, and they might tend to kind of jump in when it’s not their turn. The facilitator does need to remind people sometimes that the meeting is being conducted in a particular way and why it’s being conducted in that way.’
There were times when I haven’t managed a meeting as well as I wanted to. It’s important to do this as often as you can to gain more confidence. What people want is clarity. They want to know someone is controlling the meeting. Taking your turn in a particular order creates equality and a sense of reciprocity.
There are times when you have to tell people, “Oh, can you wait and we’ll come to your turn.” Also, somebody might start talking and go on and on and on. What you need to do there is you need to say, “Thank you, I really appreciate that. Can I bring it back to the question.” So you’re sort of reeling them back in and you’re thanking them for the contribution. It may be what they’ve gone on to speak about is important, but you can move on to that once everybody has had the chance, so it’s a rule nobody speaks twice before everybody has spoken once in the round.”
We concluded by asking Mitzi what inclusive growth means to her?
‘I think we want our organisations to be growing and successful. We want growth in a positive sense, for organisations to be contributing value to society. If they are inclusive organisations then that can only enhance the ability of the organisation to create and deliver value, which benefits everybody. For me, inclusive growth and inclusivity must be at the heart of growth.’
To get in touch with Mitzi Wyman and receive a handout explaining how to run rounds in a meeting, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll also be able to get details of the individual and bespoke Thinking Environment courses.