Traversing the U of Change
As you may know, I’ve long found great traction in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. I write about it, I use it in my teaching, and—most importantly—it is part of my inner compass as I navigate daily change. Permit me a few more observations.
Despite our human preference for order and certainty, things rarely seem to unfold in a purely linear fashion. They get served up in ambiguous, complex ways, often clustered with other variables—just to keep things spicy for us. This requires us to see with new eyes and listen differently. Changing how we listen means that we change how we experience relationships and view the world.
You’re likely also aware of my strong embrace of appreciative inquiry, which is both a mindset and a discipline for changing how we listen…which changes everything.
The image below helps me integrate and interpret these ideas. Learning to traverse the path of the U from point A (today) to point B (some future time) helps us accept and welcome change—but it’s not easy. Doing so requires one to be willing to be changed, to do the inner work of attending differently.
If we don’t open to our inner work, we default to our habitual ways of thinking, not surprisingly yielding only incremental change. As such, we’re downloading the past. We're not really listening; we're codifying our past learnings. This usually happens unconsciously. If we are listening, we're listening from habit, reconfirming what we already know.
The deeper we go into the U, the more we are opening. At the next level we begin to listen from a posture of being separate from the other person. It feels like a factual type of listening, with our head brains fully engaged. What we're noticing is information that really doesn't line up with the way that we've constructed the world. It's disconfirming information.
By allowing ourselves to open even more fully at a heart brain level, we’re listening from the heart. This is empathic listening. By opening with empathy we connect or overlap with the other person; we're better able to see the world through their eyes; stand in their shoes; look outward at the horizon together.
The most open, generative form of listening is what Scharmer calls listening from the field. This is listening with head, heart, and gut brains fully aligned. There is both a complete alignment within, and a deep sense of union externally. My years of studying the yoga philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita reinforces other ancient wisdom traditions – the notion of connection; that we are not separate from one another. We are one--that's the field.
When we are operating from the posture of feeling the connection to the whole, that's the connection to the field—a space from which the most generative outcomes develop. It is the most future oriented, the most reciprocal in creating lift, and the most positively generative. That's the opening; holding space for something new to be born, hence the label of generativity.
I hope you’ll embrace this reminder about this deeper kind of listening. When thinking about changing how to listen, we have to change first and foremost how we listen to ourselves. If we can change the level at which you are listening to yourself, practicing that we can also then change how we listen in every conversation of which we're part.
You can practice this by ‘simply’ observing. Consider in an upcoming team meeting how you might, without any announcement to anybody, simply decide to listen at a deeper level than you normally do. Observe your inner dialogue, without making any judgments. Just observe and see if you can consciously take yourself to different levels of listening to the usual dialogue you're part of. Later, reflect upon what came up for you when you were aware of listening with this conscious intention. It's about the conversation that each of us is having inside our own head, the conversation between our heads, our hearts, and our gut brains.
Of course all these things apply equally to our teams, our organizations, and to our communities.
Remember, how we engage in collective
work is influenced by the strength of
our own internal practice
Throughout our internal awareness practice we're going to encounter issues that lead us to a choice of whether to open our thinking or close it and become judgmental about things. This is shaped by our worldview. When judgment arises within us we keep downloading the past, remaining stuck in the ways we've always framed that issue. So the first part of conscious awareness is to practice being aware. Simple, right?....”Be aware of something that's unconscious!!??!!” When practicing and falling short, instead of penalizing yourself about being judgmental, see if you can flip your inner dialogue and ask yourself, “Gee, am I being judgmental here?”
The more you become attuned to this listening practice with nonjudgmental curiosity, the more familiarity and confidence you’ll gain. In just that one moment of consciously aware inquiry, you will have moved from a deficit lens to a neutral posture, now open to the positive.
You’ll need to acknowledge that as you are aware of new openings within you, you're going to bump into boundaries and barriers that manifest in your thinking mind as judgments.
As you open your heart, you may bump into cynicism. Life often means we encounter patterns that we've experienced many times before that don't feel so fresh for us. As a result, a little scar tissue develops, and we start to feel cynicism arise. The moment you begin to sense that cynicism arise again, try to pause and become aware of what's happening within. Allow yourself to be curious about the source and the cause of that cynicism. That simple pause for reflection is an act of compassion.
Parker Palmer refers to the worst manifestation of this as ‘corrosive cynicism’. Think about the effect that acid has on any metal or other solid surface. It just eats away at it, usually silently. Well, if the same thing happens from the toxicity in our own minds and in our language, as we interact with others that corrosive cynicism keeps our hearts from opening as fully as they might.
The barrier to opening your will is your own fear, your need to feel at all times protected, impenetrable. We all have enough lived experience—and in some cases having experienced trauma, perhaps even generational trauma—that is at the root of one’s fear. When I talk about fear, I'm not trying to intellectualize it or dismiss it. It is real. What I'm trying to lift up here is being aware of when fear surfaces within you.
These barriers—the voices of judgment, cynicism, and fear—are encountered when traversing the left side of the U, which Scharmer calls letting go. Your internal work is to practice being aware of your self-produced default thinking barriers in a much more intentional way and doing your best to let them go.
What are the things that I consciously want
to be more aware of?
What will I practice going forward?
A sustained practice of conscious awareness—inner work—brings you to a point represented at the base of the U. This is the point at which we are both symbolically and truly the most open, the most alive, the most energized, the most filled with potential.
This point of regeneration and reimagination becomes the platform for moving up the right side of the U—letting come. For me, a lot of the left side is internal work and a lot of the right side I think of as external work. That's a bit too simplistic, but I offer that as an illustration of a way you might think about this.
As we are moving into the emerging future and we encounter barriers, there are invitations/responses/reframes that we can call into our conscious mind. For instance, when in our thinking mind we bump up against our voice of judgement we might counteract it by inviting curiosity. From your heightened awareness, perhaps you’re now better suited to inquire: ‘I wonder what is happening here?’ Parker Palmer reminds us that when all other solutions seem empty, turn to wonder. I love that because he’s reminding us to embrace curiosity to help us get past our judgmental minds.
Even as we become aware of our own voice of cynicism, curiosity can become a magnet for our compassion, the best invitation to counteract our cynicism. When curiously compassionate, we need only say to ourselves, “I wonder what might be the cause of that person’s internal pain, their posture toward the world, what might cause them to hold that view?” It's a way of trying to put ourselves into the other’s shoes.
Finally, in trying to open our will and resolve we’re likely to encounter the barrier of our own fear. Our new consciously aware practice invites us to tap our inner courage as a way of counteracting our fear. Trust your courage to walk into your fear and through it.
From my own long practice with this advice, anytime I bump into these barriers at any/all three levels, I am now conditioned to try to think of its corollary invitation. As I am able to sit with these invitations, it propels me outside of myself to see more of what's trying to emerge in the world. This can be applied at multiple levels. There are dimensions of the next chapter of you that are right now wanting to emerge just as there are dimensions of one other person that you care deeply about—your teams, your organization, your community.
The whole container of the U is part of a braided, regenerative leadership consciousness. When you are paying attention to both the letting go side and the letting come side—to the internal dialogue and the external possibility—that's holding the whole container, which is a form of regenerative leadership consciousness.
And what grounds all of this? It's grounded in your inner light. You and you alone know how brightly this burns. You and you alone know how much oxygen you are feeding that light. When leading from your strengths, I'm inviting you to trust the quality of that inner light.