The obligatory phrase ‘How are you?’ is, more often than not, the opening line of many of our conversations. Whether we are talking to a family member, friend, colleague or even a stranger, we tend to ask some variation of this question. But how often do we get a genuine response about how the other person is feeling? At the best of times, this is something worth reflecting upon but especially so when thinking about the emotionally loaded themes a global pandemic is germinating. For this reason, on Saturday 2nd May, Jill and I are leading a webinar for the Teacher Development Trust as part of their #CPDConnectUp series. As we all adjust to new ways of living, working and communicating, we are particularly interested in how we can support colleagues to approach emotionally loaded conversations driven by fear, anxiety or stress, for example. 

We are both emotional and rational beings. From our own personal experiences as leaders, we understand that strong emotions can be conjured from a multitude of situations, different perceptions and misunderstandings. However, we don’t always find the space to properly reflect, lean-in and provide a considered and calm response. Therefore, when thinking about how we go about having emotionally loaded conversations with our teams, Jill and I have explored how Nancy Kline’s 10 components of a Thinking Environment from her book, ‘Time to Think’ can support us to create the type of positive spaces to navigate emotionally-loaded conversations sensitively but constructively.

Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think emphasises the crucial importance of creating time and space to think. We are time poor and may lack the mental space or the emotional literacy to thoughtfully and compassionately handle such conversations. Kline provides a powerful framework to help us create the types of fertile environments where thinking, emotion and support can flourish, enriching relationships and building trust.  The ten behaviours that generate the finest thinking, and have become known as The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment, are: Attention, Equality, Ease, Appreciation, Encouragement, Feelings, Information, Diversity, Incisive Questions, Place. For those who are interested in exploring Kline’s ideas more fully, you can do that here: For the purpose of this think piece, we would like to explore some questions which relate to Kline’s idea of establishing a purposeful and productive thinking environment as we support others who are currently experiencing strong emotions. 

1). What does it mean to listen? 

2). Why is thinking so hard? 

What does listening mean? Listening to understand, not simply respond

Active listening is a skill that takes much practice. Many of the conversations we have are what Susan Scott would call ‘..a versation’ where one person monopolises the agenda, uninterested in the other person’s views and instead focused only on getting their point across or sharing specific information. In such conversations, we use social cues to gauge when it is our turn to respond which can often feel like conversation tennis. In such conversations, the focus is less on understanding and more on response. This is problematic if we are trying to create the type of environments where the other person feels comfortable to share their vulnerabilities and talk about a subject they feel strongly about, their ideas or concerns. 

In Nancy Kline’s Time to Think she talks about highlights the importance of listening as: 

Attention is an act of creation

The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Attention, driven by the promise of no interruption, and by respect and interest in where people will go with their thinking, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Attention is that powerful. It generates thinking. It is an act of creation.

Attention: listening with palpable respect and genuine interest, and without interruption

What this looks like in action is focused attention, making eye-contact and thinking carefully about the messages your body language is sending off. As many of the face-to-face conversations that we used to have are now taking place via a screen it is even more important that we consider the ways in which we are showing the person to whom we are talking to that they have our full attention. What are some of the methods that you are using? For example, how often do you paraphrase or summarise what the other person has said, to show that you have been listening and what you have understood, before jumping in with your response? It would be worth considering what your colleagues might say if they were asked about your listening skills. 

Why is thinking so hard? 

As we face the challenge of COVID-19 and school closure (and re-opening), we are all under pressure and may consider we don’t have sufficient time to think and to plan. We are constantly overstretching ourselves in our pursuit of doing more, being more and living more. Yet this state of perpetual juggling leaves us frazzled and far less likely to spend time making considered decisions and choices. More often than not, we rely upon quick decisions and get straight into enacting them without having done the necessary thinking that is required to ensure that we have considered all possibilities and options. 

The conversations that we are having right now are either centre upon the current context and how we are responding to it or what we need to do in the future when things start to return to a sense of normality. It is inevitable that these conversations will be driven by many emotions such as: anxiety, stress, fear and grief. However, it is also a time to cultivate positive emotions as we start to reimagine our approach to schooling and education more broadly. How are we, then, using our conversations as fertile ground to germinate constructive and considered ideas, where everyone’s voice is heard and listened to? Never before has it been so important that we enter into conversations with our teams to really think about the options that lay ahead, exploring ideas, sense-making and co-constructing the best way forward for the context and communities we serve. To do this properly, we will need to ensure that we create conversational environments to think, inquire and co-construct. 


Even in a hierarchy people can be equal as thinkers

In a Thinking Environment everyone is valued equally as a thinker. Everyone gets a turn to think out loud and a turn to give attention. To know you will get your turn to speak makes your attention more genuine and relaxed. It also makes your speaking more succinct.

Equality keeps the talkative people from silencing the quiet ones. And it requires the quiet ones to contribute their own thinking. The result is high quality ideas and decisions.

Equality: treating each other as thinking peers; giving equal turns and attention; keeping boundaries and agreements

With this in mind, how are you currently holding team meetings? Do you feel confident that these are seen as spaces to think rather than simply information transmitting or receiving spaces? What approaches do you currently take to ensure that your team has the opportunity to think deeply about the problems you are dealing with? In your interactions with parents, or with students, are you listening carefully, respecting their perspective and their possible anxiety, but still trying to work constructively with them to find the best way forward?

It is important to note that we are by no means suggesting that those we lead have to have emotive conversations with us but they need to know that they can should they want to. However, adopting a Thinking Environment approach isn’t just about emotional conversations, more broadly speaking this is also about our ability to solve complex problems, build relational trust and co-operative relationships. Responding to the emotional load of this context might be one aspect, but moving forward it will also set us in good stead to address the complicated and complex nature of school improvement in an increasingly uncertain landscape. Basically, what we are trying to say is that this should by no means be viewed as a ‘fluffy add-on’. The conversations we have really matter and no conversation should ever be taken for granted.