Presencing: Learning From the Future As It Emerges

  • I. Three Issues and Puzzles
  • II. Principles of an Emerging Discipline: Presencing
  • III. Tools
  • III. Tools

    To better situate and integrate these principles, let us briefly discuss three tools as they are used in the process of presencing. These tools map some different qualities of attention on the individual level (tool 1: listening), the collective level (tool 2: languaging), and the organizational level (tool 3: leadership laboratories).

    Tool 1: Listening

    Figure 6 maps four different places from which any system can operate.

    In listening 1 the place of attention is within myself (I-in-me). What I hear is what I already know. Thus, listening 1 is is simply the activity of downloading and reconfirming my old mental models and prejudices. I know that I am using my listening 1 skills if a situation confirms all my mental models and prior assumptions.

    In listening 2 the focus of attention moves from myself to the periphery (I-in-it). I pay attention to every word that is said. I pay attention to everything that might differ from my expectations and mental models. This level of listening corresponds to the level 2 cognition referred to earlier as seeing (see Figure 5) While listening to another person, I experience the other person as an "it," a thing, an entity that is separate from myself. I know that I am operating using my listening 2 skills when I hear something that surprises me, when I am discovering something new "out there.".

    Shifting the Locus of Listening

    Figure 6: Shifting the Locus of Listening

    In listening 3 the experience of the other person shifts from being an "it," a thing, to being a "you," a human being (I-in-you). All dialogue experiences include this subtle switch from seeing the world through my own eyes to suddenly seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes (Buber, 1970; Isaacs, 1999). In terms of cognition the shift is from level 2 cognition (seeing) to level 3 (sensing). I know when I am operating using my listening 3 skills when I have gone outside the boundaries of my organization and become one with another person, even if only briefly.

    In listening 4 the source of attention moves yet another step upstream to the ultimate source through which the Self and you (thou) come into being (I-in-now). At this level, the separation between I and you fully collapses into the self-transcending experience of flow and spherical expansion. In terms of cognition the switch is from sensing to presencing. The difference between the two is that sensing taps into emerging futures in one’s environment while presencing uses one’s highest self to sense and embody what is about to emerge. I know that I am using my listening 4 skills when the boundaries between myself and the other person have collapsed and when my locus of listening has shifted towards listening from the whole—or, to use a more tangible criteria, when after the conversation I have become a different person (being more who I truly am).

    While most organizations and individuals are pretty good at listening 1 (downloading), and many companies have mastered listening 2, few organizations and groups are really skilled at listening 3 (inquiry) and rarely reach listening 4 (presencing).

    And yet, the more we move into an innovation-driven economy, the more the capacity to operate from at levels 3 and 4 will become a major source of competitive advantage. Great artists know that the key to their creative performance is deeply connected to their ability to listening. The violinist Miha Pogacnik told of his first concert in the cathedral of Chartres:

    When I gave my first concert in Chartres I felt that the cathedral almost kicked me out. For I was young and I tried to perform as I always did: just playing my violin. But then I came to realize that in Chartres you actually cannot play your small violin, but you have to play the macro violin. The small violin is the instrument that is in your hands. The macro violin is the whole cathedral that surrounds you. The cathedral of Chartres is entirely built according to musical principles. Playing the macro violin requires you to listen and to play from another place. You have to move your listening and playing from within to beyond yourself. (Pogacnik, personal conversation)

    This account captures a critical challenge that most leaders of organizational change l face today: learning to shift from playing the small instrument (i.e., operating from listening 1 and cognition 1, which are bounded by what we already know) to playing the macro violin (i.e., operating from listening and cognition 4, which go beyond the current boundaries and tap into the sources of emergence). From this view, the essence of leadership is the capacity to switch the place from which a system operates (Scharmer, forthcoming).

    The challenges that leaders face in improving the quality of their attention are related to the cognitive inflection points discussed earlier. Figure 7 shows how the inflection points correspond to the different modes of listening. Moving from listening 1 to listening 2 involves passing over the threshold of suspension: suspending the politeness of habitual talk. Moving from listening 2 to listening 3 involves passing over the threshold of redirection: redirecting one’s attention from exterior (things) to interior (the coming-into-being of things), from listening to exterior statements to listening from the inner place where speech acts are first articulated, or to put it in a little more radical way, to listening from inside the self of another. Finally, moving from listening 3 to listening 4 involves passing over the threshold of emptiness: letting go and surrendering to what wants to emerge.

    Inflection Points Between the Four Levels of Listening

    Figure 7: Inflection Points Between the Four Levels of Listening

    Let us now switch the perspective on presencing from the individual (listening) to the collective (languaging).

    Tool 2: Languaging

    Many change processes fail because they are unable to sufficiently uncover the current and emerging realities of a system. Often, the quality of conversation is unable to capture the system’s complexity. Without adequate dialogue, teams are unable to express their tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions about how the system really works or doesn’t work.

    Languaging — Four Fields of Conversation

    Figure 8: Languaging — Four Fields of Conversation

    Figure 8 outlines a process archetype developed through many consulting, action research, and community-building experiences (Scharmer, forthcoming; Isaacs, 1999). The model is based on four generic stages and fields of languaging:

    • Field I, talking nice: reproducing or "downloading" an existing language game.
    • Field II, talking tough: adapting the language game to what is really going on in the minds of the participants; addressing and debating the real issues.
    • Field III, reflective dialogue: redirecting one’s attention to the assumptions that underlie our points of view; inquiring into the underlying assumptions of current reality and sensing emerging realities.
    • Field IV, generative dialogue: going through the space of emptiness and arriving at a timeless sphere and source that reconnects us with our highest potential, both individually and collectively; presencing.

    Conversation moves through the four fields. In each quadrant, the speech acts (Searle, 1969) differ in how they relate to the rules of the language game ín which they operate. Rule-repeating (talking nice), rule-adapting (talking tough), rule-intuiting (reflective dialogue), and rule-generating speech acts (generative dialogue) produce different kinds of conversations, each of which allowing the conversational field to operate from a different place.

    Regarding our discussion of change, we might say that each level of unfreezing or uncovering reality requires a particular language mode. For example, uncovering the third level of reorganization (reframing) requires using reflective dialogue (field III). And uncovering the fourth level of organizational reality (common will) requires using generative dialogue (field IV).

    Thus, the challenge in leading change is to help teams and organizations get "unstuck" from the first field (talking nice) and to develop the capacity to move with ease across all four fields of conversation as needed in a particular situation. However, the question remains: What sorts of interventions or speech acts allow a system to shift the place from where it operates?

    Leadership = Shifting the Place from Which a System Operates

    Shifting from politeness (field I) to reconnecting what we think with what we say (field II) requires suspending the old ways of communicating (see Figure 9). In other words, say what you think; confront other actors with obvious contradictions between what they say and what they do.

    Inflection Points For Shifting The Locus of Conversational Fields

    Figure 9: Inflection Points For Shifting The Locus of Conversational Fields

    Moving from a field II conversation (debate) to a field III conversation (reflective dialogue) again involves shifting the tacit field structure of conversation. In a debate, each individual advocates his or her own point of view. In contrast, in a reflective dialogue participants shift from advocating their own pinions to inquiring into the assumptions that underlie them. That shift involves redirecting the collective attention from exterior to inner sources and assumptions. The works of Argyris and Schön (1996), Schein (1992, 1999), Isaacs (1993), and Srivastva and Cooperiders (1990) address this reflective turn by focusing on "double loop learning" (Argyris and Schön), "taken-for-granted assumptions" (Schein), "suspending assumptions" (Isaacs), or "appreciative inquiry" (Srivasta and Cooperider). The principal leverage for the facilitator/intervenor is to reconnect what people think and say with what they see and do. It does not help to say: "I just noticed that everybody seems to be engaged in blaming others rather then reflecting on their own responsibility. Why don’t we try to use reflection and inquiry." This intervention will almost certainly fail because it only talks about reflective inquiry. Instead of reflecting on his own impulses, the intervenor blames others.

    Moving from reflective to generative dialogue again involves a shift. This time, the shift involves moving across the threshold of emptiness and surrendering to the flow of the emerging new (generative dialogue or presencing). In presencing, the place where I operate is identical to the place where we operate. It emerges from the presence or the coming into being of the larger whole. Sometimes, this level of conversation occurs after many days of common work, as intentional quietness or sacred silence (Isaacs 1999). When it happens, the experience of time slows down, and the speech acts change from speaking based on reflection to speaking from what emerges in the here and now. Jaworski (1996), referring to Buber (1970), describes this level of reality experience as synchronicity, in which the boundaries between I and thou seem to completely disappear. Thus, like reflective dialogue, generative dialogue is based on reconnecting what we think and say with what we do and see. The difference is that in field III one acts first and reflects second, whereas in field IV the two happen synchronistically (action = reflection).

    The drama of dialogue plays out according to these four types of conversation. They differ in the degree of complexity that they are able to capture and represent. The more easily teams and companies are able to move across the four fields of conversational action, the more they will succeed in unfreezing and accessing the deeper and more subtle levels of learning and change.

    The essence of moving from fields I, II, and III to field IV (I-in-now) is not only to shift from Type I learning (reflection) to Type II learning (presencing) but also involves a profound aesthetic experience. At the heart of this experience is a spheric expansion and enhancement of one’s own experience of self. When Pogacnik speaks of playing the macro violin, what he means is that the source of his playing is the surrounding larger whole, rather than his smaller self. Consider another example, the case of the legendary basketball player Bill Russell. Says Russell:

    Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even a mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is very difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter or more. … It would surround not only me and the other Celtics, but also the players on the other team, even the referees.

    At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in a white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive — which is a miracle in itself. I´d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut and pass could be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. … My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all of the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine."

    Russell and Pogacnik both talk about the same phenomenon — about operating from an enlarged and enhanced field of self. They do not talk about first observing themselves from outside (reflection) and then performing an activity (action). This sequence would be classic field III behavior (reflection). Field IV actions, in contrast, are based on instantaneous learning with zero feedback delay — i.e., one operates from two places or spheres simultaneously: (1) from the peripheral sphere of one’s own organization, sensing what is about to emerge ("playing the macro violin;" "my premonitions would be constantly correct"); and (2) from within one’s organization as Pogacnik played the violin and Russell made his moves and shots at the very same moments that they perceived their actions from outside. During these instances of high performance the self operates both outside and within one’s own organization.

    Tool 3: Leadership Laboratories

    The third tool, the leadership laboratory, helps to make this way of operating work in the context of large organizations (Jaworski and Scharmer, 2000). The key idea of the laboratory is to provide leaders with an opportunity to explore and nurture three interrelated and interwoven environments or spaces of thought and action.

    The first environment is about seeing and sensing and taking the paraticipants outside the boundaries of their organization. For example, one might conduct field visits to new economy companies or other places where people can sense and experience the emerging new.

    The second environment is about retreat and reflect: an elevated space for thinking, where the point is to enhance the quality of thinking together, specifically, to advance from sensing to presencing. For example, the laboratory might arrange to take managers on a multi-day retreat in Santa Fe. There, they would begin by crystallizing the learning from field visits, put the different images of emerging realities together, and use this as a body of resonance for presencing the emerging new, both individually and collectively.

    The third environment is a kind of business incubator designed to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into powerful innovations and embodied actions.

    Thus, the Leadership Laboratory is a tool that helps managers to deeply connect to the emerging futures outside (space I), and within (space II) and to bring them forth into reality (space III).

    Conclusion: Presencing — An Emerging Sixth Discipline?

    The challenges of the three revolutions outlined above will require leaders to develop a new leadership capacity. Throughout this paper I have described this new capacity from the perspective of learning, change, and cognition, highlighting both the individual and the collective aspects of this emerging new capacity. The name I propose for this capacity is presencing. Presencing is both a collective/organizational and an individual/personal experience in which the Self becomes the gate through which the new comes into reality. It is the discipline of bringing one’s full Self into presence and use one’s highest Self as vehicle for sensing and bringing forth new worlds (see Figure 10).


    Figure 10: Organizational Learning Disciplines

    During the 1980s and 1990s a number of learning disciplines emerged that today are used in the learning practices of many companies (Senge et al. 1994, 1999). They include the methods and tools of Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery, Dialogue, Parallel Structuring, Process Consultation, and others. Each of these methods and disciplines is grounded in a distinct body of principles and practices (Argyris and Schön 1996; Schein 1987, 1992, 1999; Senge 1990; Bohm 1990; Isaacs 1999; Senge et al. 1994, 1999; Nonaka and Konno, 1998; Kim 1992, 1994).

    Figure 10 situates the emerging discipline of presencing in the larger context of organizational learning and change. If we consider the various learning disciplines as part of a larger whole, then Systems Thinking is related to conceptualization and other functions of the "head"; Process Consultation and Parallel Structures are related to being firmly grounded in business realities, i.e., the functions of the "feet"; and Dialogue, Personal Mastery, and Presencing are related to the middle sphere, which touches on what people really care about and where their commitment comes from (the heart). The power of presencing may be related to using the Self as the eye of the needle for transforming social substance.

    The managerial implication of this is profound but simple. There is only one sustainable tool for leading change in the 21st century. This tool is the leader’s Self. Your Self. It is the capacity of the "I" to transcend the boundaries of its current organization and to operate from the emerging larger whole (I-in-now) both individually and collectively. Building on Schein’s (2000) definition of leadership as "the ability to rise to the occasion," we can conclude that the leader’s real work is to create conditions that allow leaders — that is: everybody who rises to the occasion — to shift the place from which their organization or system operates.


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