We are constantly stressing the critical importance of reflection and thinking time in leadership development programs, it is often these structured moments of thinking space that are the real ‘damascene’ moments on a program, where thoughts come together and ideas are formulated; where participants at last ‘see the light’ around their particular challenges and issues.
Nancy Kline is the doyenne of the 'Thinking Environment' approach to coaching. She was speaking at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s inaugural Coaching conference in London on Friday 17th June. Kline’s approach to coaching and leadership development is grounded in the belief that most people have the potential to unlock the solutions to their challenges and barriers from within themselves. They just require the right environment to encourage them to think the issues through – and the confidence to do it.
‘Everything the client [or anyone] does depends on the quality of their thinking’ Kline believes ‘and the purpose of coaching is to get the client to think for themselves’. Kline’s approach has been developed over the last twenty years, and she has evolved a framework ‘The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment’ to structure the coaching work around. At the core of this framework is the concept of ‘Generative Attention and Uncorrupted Silence’. This is the idea that people will be able to be more innovative and constructive in thinking around their issues and problems, if they believe they have the support of someone’s complete attention. And the balancing side of this partnership is that the listener must be completely silent whilst focusing their attention on the ‘client’.
The Coaching Process
A very short trial of this approach is extraordinarily revealing. Two people sit close to each other, one takes the role of the ‘client’ and the other of the ‘coach’. The coach opens the session by asking the client ‘what do you want to think about?’ and then fixes their attention, and eyes, on the client. The client can then talk about any topic that is on their mind as freely as they wish, with the knowledge that someone is listening but will not interrupt or say anything until the client declares ‘I think that is all, I have finished’. At which point the coach encourages ‘what more do you feel or want to say?’ and the client is once more in charge.
The role of coach is actually (for your correspondent anyway, in a five minute trial) viscerally difficult. The urge to agree, prompt, encourage is over-whelming, in normal interactions this would be expected as part of social norms – but under the ‘contract’ understood by both parties at the outset of the coaching it is clearly ruled out. From the perspective of the client it is both empowering and liberating. It forces the client to think and articulate out loud, rather than allowing clumsy thoughts to accumulate in the mind, and it enables and generates new solutions.
The Very New Empirical Evidence
The issue with Kline’s ‘Generative Attention: Uncorrupted Silence’ approach is that it does come perilously close to the kind of spiritual, new age-y approaches that put hard-nosed business people immediately on edge and cynical – as with many such leadership engagements that require experienced executives to open up their antenna to their own feelings.
But the big news is – and it is likely to radically change the whole dynamic of leadership and personal development – that now much of what has been side-lined as being too whacky for business is beginning to be explained by empirical neuro-scientific evidence. Paul Brown, a Professor in Organisational Neuroscience and Individual and Organisational Psychology, shone a light at the conference into some of the emerging knowledge of how the brain works with practical implications for how we humans interact.
In future years we will be as familiar with references to the brain’s limbic system and the real role of the amygdala and synaptic gaps as we are today with expecting people to have a general understanding of the effects of CO2 to the atmosphere or the difference between digital and analogue transmission. Common currency now – ground breaking thoughts and terminologies two decades ago. Suffice to say that the limbic system is one of three major zones of the brain and is central to controlling emotions. It does this by producing differing quantities of neuro-chemicals under different sensed situations. An awareness of focused, supportive attention will produce more of the right chemical to stimulate the brain’s creative areas, allowing relevant synapses to make new connections and thus creating new thoughts and ideas.
The brain is a morass of electronic pathways, and in the adult mind thoughts will travel the most familiar routes unless stimulated and encouraged to seek alternatives. This is why getting people to change behaviour is a slow and difficult process – their brains’ are already programmed with a network of travelled routes and trying to create a new pathway is hard work.
Kline’s ‘Generative Attention: Uncorrupted Silence’ approach is a high intensity method of getting people, but particularly leaders and executives, to change their behaviours by re-routing their hardwired thinking.