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Summary: Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline

Time to Think (1999) is a thought-provoking exploration of the power gained by giving individuals our undivided attention and creating a space for authentic thinking and dialogue. It unveils the profound impact that dedicated listening and respectful silence can have on unlocking creativity, fostering growth, and nurturing meaningful relationships.

Introduction: Unlock the thinking potential within yourself and others.

Have you ever been in a bustling crowd, yet felt like the only person in the room because someone gave you their undivided attention?

The late Diana, Princess of Wales had an extraordinary ability to create this feeling in others, embodying a principle we’ll call the Thinking Environment. Her presence would dissolve nervousness, making individuals feel like they truly mattered. She had the unique knack of turning the spotlight on others, even in a room full of people there to see her.

Why is this relevant? Well, the quality of everything we do is directly connected to the thinking we do beforehand, which is influenced by the quality of attention we receive from others. Whether in organizations, families, or personal relationships, establishing a Thinking Environment can foster an abundance of good ideas, spur action, and ensure that individuals thrive.

So how do you create such an environment? It involves a mixture of undivided attention, questioning that eliminates limiting assumptions, and fostering conditions conducive to independent thought.

In this summary, we’ll cover all of these factors in detail and delve into the world of the Thinking Environment, where you’ll discover how to refine your listening, questioning, and appreciating to unlock your thinking potential, and that of others.

Summary: Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline

The Thinking Environment

There are ten overall conditions for creating a Thinking Environment, but let’s focus here on three of its core pillars –⁠ Attention, Incisive Questions, and Appreciation.

The quality of your attention directly affects the quality of another person’s thinking. This point can’t be understated. Paying good attention brings out the best in others, making them articulate and creative. Poor attention can cause them to falter and struggle.

One common illustration of this is that when people share their problems, we often leap into solution mode. We believe that’s what they’re seeking. But how often does the other person actually end up following your advice? Or maybe they did follow it, but it didn’t resolve the situation in a way that was totally satisfying to them?

It’s usually better to allow people the opportunity to use their own cognitive faculties to find a solution. After all, the mind grappling with a problem is usually also capable of finding its solution. And the solution they find themselves is one they’ll more readily follow.

So, instead of rushing to provide advice, offer people the space to explore their own thoughts first. By simply listening and asking questions such as, “What else comes to mind?” or “What else do you think?” you can help them uncover fresh ideas and perspectives.

When speaking with someone, it’s also essential to resist the temptation to interrupt or finish their sentences. This stifles their creativity and denies them the opportunity to express themselves fully. And be sure to maintain eye contact. It’s a powerful way to show your full attention and presence, affirming that the other person’s ideas matter.

Another crucial component of the Thinking Environment is Incisive Questions. Incisive Questions are designed to eliminate limiting assumptions –⁠ those negative beliefs that act as barriers to our thought process –⁠ and inspire fresh thinking.

Let’s imagine a scenario: You’re hesitant to approach your boss, Neil, due to a fear that he’ll dismiss your ideas as stupid. Beneath that fear, you discover a deeper assumption: the belief that you might genuinely be inadequate or stupid. This kind of limiting assumption restricts your actions and potential, preventing you from pursuing what you want or need.

Now, let’s consider how to handle such a situation. A well-meaning colleague might tell you to simply ignore Neil’s possible reaction and assert yourself. But this advice doesn’t effectively address your limiting assumption, and hence, doesn’t encourage you to change your behavior.

An Incisive Question, on the other hand, can be transformative. It prompts you to reassess your limiting assumption, engage with a more empowering belief, and explore new possibilities. For instance, replacing the limiting assumption of being stupid with the freeing assumption of being intelligent can be done by posing the question, “If you knew that you were intelligent, how would you talk to Neil?”

Finally, for the third condition of a Thinking Environment, let’s discuss Appreciation, which greatly influences a person’s capacity for independent thought. Genuine praise helps people think for themselves much better than repeated criticism.

To that end, try to maintain a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism in your interactions. And when delivering criticism, always start and end with positive notes. Concentrate not on every flaw you can think of but on the main one that, if corrected, would drive significant improvement. This approach ensures that the critique is received as a constructive suggestion and makes the person much more likely to make a change.

To elevate thinking in your surroundings more broadly, simple, sincere appreciation can go a long way. Take a moment to acknowledge the positives in others and express them honestly. Try it out today. Think of someone you admire or appreciate, someone you may not have praised openly for a while, or ever. Choose some words to express your admiration –⁠ and then tell them! Repeat this act on a weekly basis, ensuring your words are authentic and heartfelt.

By practicing the principles of Attention, Incisive Questions, and Appreciation, we can all help ourselves and others to uncover innovative ideas, remove limiting assumptions, and maintain a positive mindset.

Improving organizational thinking

Every single day, we’re influenced by the choices made by a range of organizations. Whether they’re companies, schools, or governments, they decide everything from how we work to what we eat and even what we spend our money on. The decisions they make are a direct reflection of the quality of thinking within them. And the quality of thinking is, in turn, shaped by how the group members treat each other when they’re in the process of decision-making.

Let’s consider team meetings. They’re the heart of group thinking in any organization. Making sure that these meetings act as a cradle for nurturing thought –⁠ a Thinking Environment –⁠ can be a secret superpower.

It starts by making sure everyone in the meeting gets a chance to speak. This part is crucial, because all too often, it’s only the quickest and most vocal people who dominate meetings. That means a lot of good ideas go unsaid –⁠ or even unthought! After all, people think when they speak. Denying them a turn to speak, then, denies them a turn to think.

So, open every meeting by going around the room and asking everyone what’s currently going well in their work. This creates a feel-good base from which to tackle any problems that may arise later. When the time comes to discuss the first item on the agenda, let everyone have a go at it. Make sure that everyone gets to have their say without any interruption. This approach will boost group intelligence and allow ideas to flow more freely and rapidly.

The same principles can supercharge brainstorming sessions. Allowing each person to contribute their ideas in turn before opening up the floor can lead to more innovative and unique ideas. Incorporating pair discussions, where pairs bounce ideas off each other, can also unearth hidden gems. It all boils down to this: When people are allowed to express their thoughts without interruption, creativity blooms naturally.

Now, when it comes to handling difficult conversations between two people, a technique called Timed Talks can be a game-changer. The rules are simple. Each person gets an uninterrupted three-minute window to express their thoughts, while the other listens respectfully. As soon as one person’s three minutes are up, they must stop talking, even if they’re mid-word. Repeat, taking turns for three minutes each until a solution or stopping point is reached. This method can be used in personal discussions as well as professional ones. It can also be used in positive situations in which you’re looking to come up with a creative solution or solve an interesting problem!

Overall, the focus for organizations should be on fostering a collaborative and non-competitive atmosphere in which everyone’s brilliance shines through.

The Thinking Session

Do you often find yourself acting without giving a situation much thought? Or maybe never acting because you don’t know what to think?

Fortunately, there’s a single solution to both problems: a twice-per-week dedicated Thinking Session. This is a thirty-minute period dedicated to solving a specific problem in your life. Ironically, despite taking up some of your schedule, these Thinking Sessions can save tons of time by altering your approach or transitioning you from passivity to a more effective method.

A Thinking Session requires two people, with one playing the role of the Thinker and the other the Thinking Partner. Each session has six stages.

It begins with the Thinking Partner posing a simple question to the Thinker: “What do you want to think about?” The Thinker then answers, exploring their thoughts fully, without the Thinking Partner interrupting.

When they seem to have nothing left to say, the Thinking Partner asks the Thinker, “Is there anything more you think, feel, or want to say about this?” This simple nudge often reveals more layers of thought. It helps the Thinker break away from the notion they might have that their sharing time should be limited or that their thoughts aren’t worthwhile.

The session then progresses to stage two, where the Thinking Partner asks the Thinker what they want the session to achieve at this point. This refocuses their thinking, adds hope, and helps the Thinker prioritize their thoughts. The Thinking Partner needs to listen to the Thinker’s response carefully, as the rest of the session hinges on this precision.

Moving on to the third stage, the Thinking Partner encourages the Thinker to reveal the core assumptions that might be keeping them from achieving their goal. This exploration often requires patience and further questioning. Once the assumption is identified, the Thinker is asked to articulate its positive opposite. This could be a shift from “I have no control over my life” to “I am the only one who does have control over my life.” This reversal allows for a broader scope of actions and possibilities.

The fourth stage sees the Thinking Partner construct an Incisive Question by combining the Thinker’s goal and their positive assumption. This might sound something like, “If you knew that you were the only one who does have control over your life, what would you do to live differently?” The Thinker Partner should repeat this question until the Thinker has exhausted all potential actions. This serves to dismantle barriers and push the Thinker toward their session goal.

In the fifth stage, the Thinker writes down the Incisive Question exactly as stated. This serves as a reference for future use, as often the same question can be instrumental in different scenarios. It’s also a good time for the Thinker to note down any action plans that emerged from the session.

Finally, in the sixth stage, the session concludes on an uplifting note, with both partners expressing their appreciation for each other’s qualities. It’s important to focus on personal attributes rather than the session’s content, to maintain an atmosphere of respect and positivity. For example, don’t say “Your ideas were excellent.” Instead, say “I admire the way you take on a challenge.”

In essence, a Thinking Session is a space for unhurried, clear, and transformative thought, creating a path toward effective problem-solving.

Creating Thinking Environments everywhere

Envision a world where every space is a Thinking Environment. Wherever they go, individuals feel free to voice their ideas, knowing they’ll be heard and not penalized. Imagine the potential that could be unleashed if we all woke up each day confident that our ideas matter – that our thoughts will be heard. And that we’ll be supported in identifying and discarding limiting beliefs.

Transforming everyday places into Thinking Environments might seem like a small change. But the effects would be huge and touch every part of our lives. Let’s look at how this could work using a few examples: schools, families, and love relationships.

Transforming schools into Thinking Environments would promote personal growth and cultivate thinking skills. If you’re a teacher, a powerful guideline might be to challenge students by asking their opinions five times more frequently than imparting your own.

Another idea is to allocate the last ten minutes of each class to “Thinking Pair” discussions. Form pairs and allow each person five minutes of uninterrupted talking time. They should reflect on that day’s learning and also voice what confused them. This practice facilitates learning and cultivates listening skills.

Fostering a Thinking Environment within families is also vital for personal growth and nurturing thinking skills. While it’s impossible to shield children entirely from the world’s influence or ensure they’ll always think independently, you can provide them a safe place to explore their own thoughts.

The cornerstone of this process is to refrain from belittling children or underestimating their capabilities. A key aspect is paying attention to them without haste or dismissal, honoring their ideas no matter how outlandish.

A practical way to instill this practice is through shared evening meals. Begin each meal by having every family member, including the parents, share highlights and challenges of their day. Ensure each person gets a turn to speak while others actively listen. Then, proceed with usual dinner chatter. The result is often a deeper mutual respect, enriching the family dynamic, and fostering a Thinking Environment.

Finally, turning love relationships into Thinking Environments can lead to profound growth and deeper connection. Start by eliminating interruptions, allowing your partner to explore their thoughts freely. By not finishing their sentences, you’re already on the way to fostering mutual respect and genuine attention.

Also, every evening, adopt a routine of listening to each other’s daily experiences. Be fully attentive and don’t offer unsolicited advice or comments. A rough guideline would be for each partner to have fifteen minutes of uninterrupted speaking time. Giving your partner undivided attention fosters connection and makes them feel valued.

Crucially, allow space for emotional expression without trying to “fix” problems or offer solutions. Today’s society often stigmatizes emotional expression, encouraging repression rather than the natural release of emotions. But suppressing emotions harms our health and obstructs clear thinking. Whether it’s crying, shouting in anger, or shaking in fear, these are natural outlets for emotional release that unblock thinking. So, if your partner expresses emotions, sit with them, listen attentively without panic or over-concern, and they’ll recover and regain their thinking clarity faster.


The impact of a Thinking Environment is remarkable. By prioritizing genuine attention, respectful listening, and appreciation, individuals can unlock their full thinking potential and foster personal growth. Creating a Thinking Environment involves fostering spaces where individuals are encouraged to express their thoughts freely, listened to without interruption, and allowed to voice their emotions naturally, thereby nurturing a culture of deep respect, attention, and enhanced thinking.

About the Authors

Nancy Kline


Communication Skills, Personal Development


“Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind” by Nancy Kline is a thought-provoking and enlightening book that emphasizes the importance of listening as a powerful tool for enhancing communication, fostering creativity, and unlocking the potential of human minds. Kline, an expert in the field of leadership development and a pioneer in the practice of creating thinking environments, presents a compelling case for the transformative impact of genuine and focused listening in various aspects of our lives.

The book begins by challenging the notion that thinking is a solitary activity by highlighting the significance of a thinking environment in which individuals can truly flourish. Kline argues that when we provide others with the opportunity to express their thoughts and ideas without interruption or judgment, we create an environment that cultivates deeper thinking and generates innovative solutions. She introduces the concept of “generative attention,” emphasizing the power of actively listening to others and giving them the space to think for themselves.

Throughout the book, Kline presents a series of practical tools and techniques that can be employed to improve listening skills and create thinking environments. She explores the dynamics of conversation and identifies common barriers to effective listening, such as assumptions, judgments, and distractions. Kline encourages readers to develop a mindset of curiosity and openness, fostering an environment in which everyone’s thoughts and contributions are valued.

One of the key elements of Kline’s approach is the practice of “appreciative inquiry,” which involves asking open-ended questions that encourage individuals to explore their thinking more deeply. By employing this technique, listeners can help others uncover their own insights and arrive at solutions they may not have considered before. Kline also highlights the importance of creating a safe and non-judgmental space for dialogue, allowing individuals to express their thoughts freely and without fear of criticism.

Furthermore, Kline delves into the role of emotions in thinking and listening. She acknowledges that emotions play a vital part in the thinking process and advocates for their acknowledgment and exploration. By embracing emotions and allowing them to be expressed, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others, leading to more meaningful and fulfilling conversations.

“Time to Think” is a well-researched and well-structured book, enriched with real-life examples and anecdotes that illustrate the power of deep listening. Kline’s writing style is clear and engaging, making complex concepts accessible to a wide range of readers. She combines theory with practical application, providing readers with actionable steps to improve their listening skills and create thinking environments in their personal and professional lives.

One of the book’s strengths lies in its emphasis on the transformative potential of listening not only in professional settings but also in personal relationships. Kline demonstrates how active listening can enhance our connections with others, foster empathy and understanding, and ultimately contribute to building stronger and more collaborative communities.

In conclusion, “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind” is a compelling and insightful book that highlights the importance of deep listening in unlocking the full potential of individuals and fostering a culture of creativity and innovation. Nancy Kline’s expertise and passion shine through in her exploration of the power of listening, providing readers with valuable tools and techniques to create thinking environments that promote growth and transformation. Whether you are a leader, a team member, or simply someone interested in improving your communication skills, this book offers a valuable guide to becoming a more attentive and effective listener.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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