‘What is the fastest way from A to B?’; ‘Speed and efficiency are what we are looking for’; ‘Let’s ask the expert’: How often to do we hear expressions like these in our work and daily lives? What if there is another way? This article explores the idea of slowing down and embracing the unknown. It invites us to take another look at research and evidence, and to move away from the answer in order to find it.
When I meet or am introduced to a new person, I am immediately curious about who they are – what drives them, what’s underneath the surface, who is this person? But then, I am a psychologist, so I guess that is to be expected. Or maybe that’s why I became a psychologist – because I have an insatiable curiosity about the human condition: Tell me your story; where are you from? What has shaped you? What gets you excited? What frustrates you, bores you, passes you by?
I recently met someone new who shared with me their belief that in every person you meet there is the potential for an amazing movie. What a great way to see people: as a richly interestingly, enthralling story. The stories within each individual and those that are woven into society are about identity, belonging, making sense of the world and this life we are born to live. They are attempts to create meaning of our experiences. They tell us about how our values and drivers are formed, and why we do what we do. Collectively, these values shape narratives and cultures. Values guide what we pay attention to, what we celebrate, what we despise, what we ignore. And of course, our unintended blind spots and the biases that evolve at an unconscious level.
Like individual people, societies, cultures, and organisations seem to prefer and prioritise either ‘objectivity and logic’ or ‘values and the human experience’. These perspectives are often pitted against each other in phrases such as ‘head over heart’, ‘cold-hearted logic’, ‘science or the arts’, bolstering the notion that they are independent from each other, separate, rivals even. Many professions encourage evidence-based practice (EVP), where how we work, the approaches we use and the policies we follow are guided and underpinned by research. The challenge is that this research-base is chosen by human beings who decide what to explore based on their interests and what their life-sphere has exposed them to, as well as many, many other factors which ultimately bias the evidence-base that is available.
One might also argue that our values are shaped by what the research tells us, and what evidence or research we choose to read or seek out – so this ‘evidence-values’ continuum turns out to be not so much a straight line but something of a circular, self-fulfilling system. (Note that the up-to-date and developing understanding of EVP – e.g., the transdisciplinary model – includes individual and population characteristics, values and felt needs – building in a richer appreciation of what a broad evidence-base might mean in a given context.)
Let’s take a brief detour: The large pre-frontal cortex of the human brain gives us a huge capacity for logical reasoning, which makes us unique in the animal kingdom. We also have the more ‘animal’ parts of our brain, the amygdala and limbic system which, according to Paul D. MacLean’s ‘triune brain’ theory, makes the chances of having a purely logical thought pretty much impossible.
Why is this? In short, it is understood by many scientists that information arriving in the brain goes first to the amygdala, which is deep within the limbic system and where unconscious emotional memories are stored. This information triggers an emotion based on these memories, before the stimulus or data reaches the pre frontal cortex, where logic is applied. This feature of the brain is understood to originate in prehistory, when it was critical to perceive threat quickly in order to move into a ‘fight or flight’ response: When confronted by a dangerous animal there was not enough time to rationally consider what to do. Our emotional brain was key to our survival.
Given that our brains seem to be wired to ensure that there is no such thing as a purely logical thought, and that both expertise and values are prone to cultural shaping and unconscious bias, what might it be like for us to let go of both? What might it be like for us to let go of both what we know (our expertise), and the values and biases that unconsciously drew us towards those areas of knowledge in the first place?
In my work as a coach and psychologist, leaders and teams often arrive with a question they want to explore and progress. Organisational cultures can demand answers and results at speed, driving a focus on efficiency: ‘What is the fastest and most cost-effective way of getting from A to B?’ And so, the temptation is to set out as the crow flies, looking for the shortest route to the best answer.
Imagine that instead of moving directly towards finding ‘the answer’, we were to move away from this point, in an altogether different direction. In ‘Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges’, Otto Scharmer (1) encourages us to do just that. Theory U explores how we need to slow down, let go of the need to know, open our hearts and minds to possibility, and see what emerges. Instead of a straight line from A to B, we drop down into ‘not knowing’, journeying back up the other side of the ‘U’ as fresh insights emerge. This is the ultimate ‘trust the process’ exercise – we instinctually do not want to move further away from the desired answer. According to Scharmer, we need to ‘let go to let come’, to ‘move our listening and playing from within to beyond ourselves’.
Scharmer describes seven enabling conditions for the U process to work and be realised:
- Holding the space – listen to what life calls you to do (requires ‘suspending’ our current understanding)
- Observing – attend with your mind wide open (requires ‘redirecting’ our usual preferred focus, a capacity that is familiar to most of us)
- Sensing – connect with your heart (requires ‘letting go’ of what we believe, an opening process that takes in the whole as inherently valuable)
- Presencing – connect to the deepest source of your self and will (which ‘enables us to begin to act from the emerging whole’ – Scharmer)
- Crystalizing – access the power of intention (the ‘letting come’ process)
- Prototyping – integrate head, heart and hand (Scharmer: ‘Creating powerful breakthrough ideas requires learning to access the intelligence of the heart and the hand—not just the intelligence of the head.’)
- Performing – ‘play the macro violin’ (requires you to ‘listen and to play from another place, from the periphery’, which in this violin-playing metaphor is the whole cathedral)
Scharmer shares many detailed examples in his book of how and where this has worked in organisations and other settings across the world. Let me finish with a story of applying this theory in my own work, specifically to the supervision of a professional coach in their own coaching practice.
We meet for coaching supervision and I start by inviting my client into a shared silence, allowing the coach to own the slowing down process as we arrive into the session. When he starts to share, I leave plenty of space; his eye movements indicate that he is thinking and reflecting out loud, exploring and self-supervising. When he re-engages eye contact, I ask ‘what is the question you would like us to explore?’, which leads him to enquire of himself and gain clarity. The question is about why he had felt a certain way after a coaching meeting; he expresses this with hand gestures, facial expression and much feeling; he is connected to the experience again, describing it as a heaviness, a knot moving down. I ask what colour he would draw it, and he shares a very specific colour, linking it to a famous artist’s painting. This becomes a metaphor in our conversation: What was it about this colour? And the painting? My client describes how his coachee showed up, how he interacted with her, what was going on in himself at the time, with comments about the organisational system. The metaphor exploration leads us down the U, and I am conscious of feeling slightly uncomfortable, a sense of not knowing where we are going, whether it will be useful. Knowing Theory U supports me to trust the process, and so I let go, allowing the process to work its magic. We arrive at a moment where ‘something just shifted, it feels lighter’ – clarity emerges for the client; the process works. As we now approach the final few minutes of our session, I ask what would be useful in these final moments, enabling my client to crystalise what he was taking away from our session, and what he will do with these new insights.
My personal and professional experience of working with Theory U has led to a shift away from an ‘expert psychologist’ perspective to a desire to master ‘not knowing’. This requires trust, vulnerability and, as Scharmer puts it, ‘letting go’. It is a paradigm shift that requires courage, curiosity and openness to possibility.
- Scharmer, C.O., “Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges”, The Society for Organizational Learning, 2007.