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Your real secret to success: Thinking partners

A new perspective can help move your business project forward


When thoughts swirl around in your head and you feel stuck, it is the perfect time to find a “thinking partner,” someone to bounce ideas off of, to have them tweaked, re-formed, or to help you see your ideas in a new light.

Recently, I was ruminating on an issue, and in just a few minutes, a colleague illuminated several assumptions that were limiting my approach. Honestly, I couldn't see this for myself because these assumptions were so implicit in my thinking that I never questioned them. This is exactly the type of benefit we receive when sharing our ideas, challenges or conundrums with a “thinking partner.” A thinking partner can point out underlying assumptions, provide new and different options, help us re-frame the issue or even offer a resource or alternative that moves us forward. 

Thinking partners may be mentors, business coaches, or people we look up to and admire; they can also be found in other professionals – such as a junior staff member, or colleague who has a different perspective than you do.

Diversity of thinking styles, training, skills, academic disciplines and organization levels make for useful conversations to test ideas and generate better solutions. Offering yourself as a thinking partner to others is one way to find people who are available to assist you as a thinking partner in return.

A conversation with a thinking partner is typically structured in six steps:

Context – Why am I thinking about this idea at this time? What is important about this issue?

Relevance – In what way do I see this idea as being potentially relevant to this person? Why am I including them in the conversation?

Request – What would be helpful to me at this time? Am I deciding between three different options and I want another opinion? Or do I want a reaction to a concept I am considering? Or perhaps, I'd like to know what could be missing from my theory or plan. Whatever it is, clarify the type of thinking support you are looking for, so you can ask for what you need and your partner can gear their comments in a useful way.

The Crux of it – What is on my mind? Out of all the aspects of the issue, what is most critical?  Plan this part of the conversation in advance so you can package the idea or issue in a way others can receive. Now Pause. It’s time to listen. Pick up your pen and take notes on what is shared, ask clarifying questions, as needed, and provide more information if you are asked. Keep your comments to a minimum, as you want to hear how their mind is processing these issues and how they thinking about them.

Summarize  – Play back the main takeaways.  What did I hear, and how has it affected my thinking?

Appreciate – Offer thanks, and extend the option for them to use you as a thinking partner, too.

Not everyone is a good thinking partner. Some people may be negative in their approach to new ideas, have ulterior motives to their suggestions, or may not be interested in open dialogue. Alternately, some issues may not be appropriate to discuss with employees at different levels or outside of the organization.

However, I find the majority of people are delighted to offer this type of support when asked, and appreciate it when the relationship is reciprocal. That said, it is important to use good judgment on the types of issues you raise and the individuals you look to for input.

I recommend starting with an issue that you care about which is not controversial or confidential. Issues involving innovations, cross-cutting collaborations, changes in the industry landscape or specific projects already underway are good topics to start with. 

What is a thinking partner and how can you find one? Now you know. And the next time you feel stuck or in a rut, turn to a thinking partner to help you move forward in your own success.

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Jessica Hartung

Jessica G. Hartung, MSM, is the founder and CEO of Integrated Work. Jessica’s 20 years of professional experiences with a variety of organizations—government, non-profits, Fortune 500, small businesses, and entrepreneurial ventures—have provided strength and flexibility to her skills as a coach and facilitator. She is known for her straightforward and compelling style that moves individuals and teams to develop the skills necessary to meet and exceed their goals. She is frequently called upon as a trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. Contact Jessica at email@integratedwork.com or 303-516-9001.

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