Making room for thinking within circles

by Jutta Herzog, Matthias zur Bonsen, and Myriam Mathys
October, 2016

Together we, Matthias, Jutta, and Myriam, brought The Circle Way to Germany by sponsoring several Circle Practica taught by co-founders Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. Each one was a rewarding experience that helped us learn and grow. Last year, the three of us discovered something that, from our perspective, perfectly complements and enhances circle practice: Thinking Environment, a body of knowledge and practice developed by Nancy Kline. After reading Nancy’s books, we flew over to the UK and attended one of her seminars – a decision we did not regret.

Nancy has devoted her whole professional life to one question: how can people be supported to think – to think deeply, independently, originally, rigorously, and creatively? The answer she came up with is the “Thinking Environment,” which can be created for individuals and for groups. When it comes to groups, the Thinking Environment overlaps with The Circle Way in intention as well as in process. We got a few very valuable ideas from Nancy, which we incorporate in our circle practice.

One of them is to start discussing every new topic that needs really good thinking and careful conversation as a talking-piece round before continuing with an open conversation. That means that, after the check-in round, another round may immediately follow, addressing a question that gets participants started in thinking and talking about the new topic.

The most important element of a Thinking Environment is to listen with undivided presence. That means listening sympathetically. Listening without judgement. Listening without interruption. Continuing to listen, even when the person speaking goes silent and departs on an inward journey to think. Even then, listeners express with their eyes and posture that they are highly attentive and benevolent toward the person who is thinking/speaking.

Here’s what happened when Myriam tried that with the management team of a German public authority. They had spent several months and dozens of consulting days redesigning a process for dealing with new clients. When they began discussing their “new clients process,” the leader was practicing being the host of a circle and, in that role (coached by Myriam), he asked the group to start a talking-piece round. He emphasized that it was important for everybody in the circle to listen carefully and show his or her attentiveness and sympathetic curiosity to the person who was thinking/speaking.

One of the first to speak was a young woman who, only two months before, had been appointed to a management position. Hers was the typical situation in which more senior colleagues wouldn’t really listen to her, and she needed some encouragement to speak an "inconvenient truth." She felt that encouragement and said, “I don’t really understand what we want to achieve with this new process. I understood that its purpose was to relieve our employees and give them more time to work on other requests that were piling up on their desks. Yet, when we implement this new process, they only save 10 minutes here and five minutes there. It is completely unrealistic to assume that, in such short time spans, people will get any additional meaningful work done.”

In that moment, it became apparent to the whole team that its youngest member was right. Those following her in the talking-piece round invariably confirmed that the new process did not make sense. Their leader agreed, and the group felt relieved that they wouldn’t be introducing an ineffective reorganization. They felt energized to redesign a new process that would create the results they sought. The group experienced its first breakthrough within 30 minutes. This would probably not have happened if Myriam hadn’t encouraged a talking-piece round and emphasized listening deeply and demonstrating reverence and receptivity toward those who are speaking/thinking .

The first thing we learned from Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment was to:

  • start a complex subject with a talking-piece round
  • emphasize that everyone should be visibly attentive toward the speaker
  • assure speakers that it’s OK to be silent and go on an inward journey to think more deeply while everyone quietly listens

The second thing we learned was the concept of Thinking Pairs. Thinking Pairs can infuse new energy and creativity into a group that is grappling with a difficult issue. Group members form pairs for just 10 minutes. Within this time, each gets five minutes to think/speak while the other listens with undivided attention. The listener simply asks “What do you think about the issue we are working on?” and remains quiet and attentive. When the pairs return to the circle, a new round starts to give everyone the chance to present (only) the new and fresh thinking that showed up during those 10 minutes.

The power of Thinking Pairs lies in the fact that new ideas often emerge as we speak—ideas that wouldn't have emerged if someone hadn’t been listening.

The three of us feel that Nancy Kline’s work is precious and can deepen and reinforce our work with The Circle Way. If you delve more into the Thinking Environment, you’ll also learn about Thinking Partnerships – a process that helps individuals unleash their full capacity to think for themselves. “Thinking” sounds mental, but we experienced it as a holistic process that not only generated new thoughts, but also new feelings.

You can learn more by reading Nancy’s books Time to Think and More Time to Think.

Jutta Herzog, Matthias zur Bonsen, and Myriam Mathys, and are organizational development consultants, facilitators, and practitioners of The Circle Way. Jutta lives in Heidelberg, Matthias lives near Frankfurt, and Myriam lives in Zurich and Berlin. Together, they were instrumental in making circle practice known in German-speaking parts of Europe. They persuaded a German publishing company to publish the book The Circle Way and took great care in finding the right German words for the key terms of circle practice as they translated it into German. Together, they offer the seminar Thinking Circles twice a year. This integrates the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea with part of the work of Nancy Kline. Jutta, Matthias, and Myriam can be reached via their websites at and or via email at, and

Deepest thanks to photographers:

  • Andy Morffew for making the image of sand martins in the header so freely available.
  • Tenneson Woolf for photos of pairs in conversation, which were taken at an August 2016 practicum on Whidbey Island in Washington State.