Do you need a thinking partner? 5 things you might look for

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

As a professional coach, I believe that coaching delivers a range of benefits to my clients. I often work with people to really clarify what’s important to them, what they want to change and to support them to make major transitions. Recently I’ve noticed clients describing me as a ‘thinking partner’ when talking about what they’ve most valued from the relationship. This got me thinking ….

Our working lives are becoming more demanding.  We face change on an unprecedented scale and business challenges are more complex and interconnected.  Leaders are often reliant on their personal and peer networks for thinking partners and turn to those they trust and have formed a bond with over shared experiences. This can be very effective. It can also lead to a lack of diversity and challenge if you surround yourself with people who think and behave like you do.

If you need a thinking partner what should you consider? Here’s my summary of the 5 attributes you might look for.


I’m not suggesting that you can’t think things through with colleagues, your manager or a friend, but I have noticed how liberated people feel when they work with someone with no vested interested in the problem or situation.

No one is ever completely ‘agenda free’ because we are all influenced by our values, beliefs and lived experiences. However, when we are not directly involved in the situation or outcome we do not have an explicit personal agenda that we must try to put to one side.

Independence makes it easier for a thinking partner to be genuinely curious and to ask lots of questions, to make fewer assumptions and explore the obvious. It helps them to step back and take a more holistic view of what is going on.

Being independent also brings less emotional attachment to the situation and the people involved

which can be really helpful when you are working through particularly challenging problems.

The ability to challenge

A thinking partner must feel like a partner and be able to challenge you. This might be difficult if you are exploring a situation with peers or a loved one. There is no added value in talking to someone who feels compelled to agree with your view of the situation, apart from a short-term confidence boost.

Within established coaching relationships I’ve challenged clients who are delaying dealing with a problem that is impacting negatively on them. They are often worrying about the ‘what ifs’ in terms of outcome and those ‘what ifs’ rarely materialise.

Used in a respectful way challenge can lead to real insights which help people to move forward positively.

They think about the thinking

When I read David Rock’s book on Quiet Leadership a few years ago the principle of thinking about the thinking really resonated with me.  It’s about exploring how someone is thinking about an issue rather than the issue itself. He describes putting the problem down on a table between the two of you so it’s not forgotten but not in your main line of sight.

A good thinking partner will stretch your thinking preferences and help you to look at an issue from different perspectives and to consider multiple causes and outcomes. They will work with you to surface gaps, assumptions and patterns of thinking and working that you may not be aware of. They help you to get your thoughts out and to organise them in a useful way.

Often your thinking partner doesn’t need to be experienced in the specific matter being explored (and it can be helpful if they aren’t).

They add value by asking open, inquisitive questions about your thinking and reflecting what they’re hearing back to you.

They help you to take action

How do you feel when you’ve worked through a problem with someone? Do you know what the next steps are? Are you energised and ready to take action right away? Do you feel a sense of balance in terms of any decisions made and how you’ve approached the problem?

A good thinking partner will motivate you to take the next step, even if this is further exploration.

You will feel like you have made progress after every conversation.

Whilst thinking in itself is a worthwhile activity it is how that thinking gets translated into learning and then action that has the real impact on you and your context.

They focus on you, not them

In her book ‘Time to Think’ Nancy Kline says that, “the quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking”. This starts with listening, really listening to people and giving them the whole of your attention.

When someone describes a problem or challenge it is human nature for the listener to focus on themselves. What would they do to solve the problem? What similar stories can they tell?  How do they feel about the situation? Their inner dialogue is off!

Thinking partners are focussed on helping others to think through a problem so their attention is fully on the individual and what will help them. Listening with full attention not only improves your understanding significantly but it helps the person you’re working with to feel safe, valued and therefore able to speak and think more freely.

Sometimes listening, really listening, is all it takes for a new insight to appear.

You often need different thinking partners for different situations. There may be someone who is great at opening up your thinking, or an individual you turn to when you need help breaking a problem down into clearer steps. Some of these attributes will be more of a priority than others depending on your context. The important thing is to

be conscious about the choices you make and expand your options if your current support networks are filled solely with people just like you.

So where do you find your thinking partners and what value do they bring to you? I’d love to hear about your experiences and to hear what you think about these 5 attributes.