What’s your posture?

Have you ever felt total safety revealing your heart to strangers?


Me either.

At least not until I took what felt like a daring leap and joined a coaching circle through U.Lab.

The coaching circles are groups of 4-5 people who meet weekly for 75 minutes.  Each week a different person presents a case that is current, concrete and important.  The case giver is a key player in a scenario that can be explained in 15 minutes. And, if addressed, the case clinic can make a big difference to the case giver moving forward.  While one person gives the case, the others listen deeply.   Otto Scharmer calls this kind of listening, Level 4 listening.  The intention is to connect with other person and listen so deeply that you (and maybe the other person) are transformed by the experience.


CC License by the Presencing Institute - Otto Scharmer  http://www.presencing.com/permissions.

CC License by the Presencing Institute – Otto Scharmer http://www.presencing.com/permissions.

In the video introducing the case clinic process, Scharmer describes the two ways we could present our case.  One way is the typical way we ask for  feedback in a professional setting.  The other is the REAL case. Presenting a REAL challenge puts us “one down” in a position of vulnerability (see video about 2:44-3:00 for how this looks).  THAT is the case clinic posture.  THAT is serious.

We were given a handout to on the process, a way to connect with each other through the Presencing Institute site and meet via Google Hangout. The basic structure is: 15 minutes for case presentation, a few minutes for clarifying questions and then 3 minutes of silence. Following the silence each of the coaches offer the images, thoughts, feelings and gestures that arose for them while listening to the case.  Then there is time for generative dialogue and NOT trying to fix/solve the problem.  The case giver then reflects on his/her situation and next steps going forward. The case clinic closes with each person expressing gratitude others and taking a few minutes to capture learning points.

Simple, right?

This has been a profound experience for the women in my circle. We didn’t know each other before the course.  We come from different countries,  backgrounds and professions (a coach, a scientist, a consultant, and me, an evaluator).  And every one of us presented a case from the heart.  I’ve learned about these women and learned to see myself in new ways through their eyes. We’ve decided to keep meeting even after the official end of U.Lab.

The vulnerable posture is NOT the one we bring to our lives most of the time, but I believe it is the one we need.  We get different results when we talk about REAL issues as REAL people, not the people we think we should be, but the confused, complicated people we are.

I’d like more opportunities for conversations like this and I’m rather certain I’m not alone.  Goodness knows we don’t need any more conversations about the cold and snow.

What do you think?  Would a structure like this work for conversations between friends, colleagues, family members, stakeholders?  Would you be willing to try it?





Seven Silence Strategies

Tomorrow at 9am Eastern, ULab participants are joining in a collective moment of stillness. The intention is to reconnect to the global community many of us are experiencing in during the course.

Stillness is radical.

Our world and habits teach us to fill the space of each moment, meeting, and meal. The chatter in our minds reflects the noise of the outer world. Practicing silence and stillness is counter-culture and can feel intimidating. There’s good news. You don’t have to develop a 30 minute a day meditation practice to experience more stillness and silence.

In honor of the global moment of silence tomorrow,  here are seven  simple silence strategies to try during your day.

Silence Strategy 1: Take a private moment of silence for yourself early in the day.

This can be as quick as taking 5 intentional breaths before you get out of bed or as long as a half hour meditation session, or anything in between. You can be silent with your cup of coffee, breathing in that roasted goodness. Experiment until you find something small that works for you.  This is also an excellent practice to use before a meeting or presentation (see #4).

Silence Strategy 2: Notice nature.

This is one of my favorite ways to find silence and solace.  Even the most buttoned up corporate headquarters has a plant somewhere. Find it. Pretend to tie your shoe and spend a few seconds filling your field of vision with living green.  Even better, find a window or go outside and find a tree, shrub, flower, ant or bird to watch for a minute or two. I’ve done this during conferences when I cannot stand one more minute inside.  A few deep breaths outside does wonders. Any water source bigger than a water fountain brings  peace.


Silence Strategy 3:  Seek silence in public.

We can’t always be alone when we need to center ourselves and find a pocket of peace. No problem. You can be silent right in front of everyone and no one will notice. Half the people will be on their phones and not paying attention anyway.  Those who look your way will take whatever visual cues you provide and assume you are doing that activity. Hold whatever prop you have- your phone, tablet, notebook, laptop, magazine- in your hands. Set your  gaze so that you’re looking over the object and down in front of you rather than focusing on your prop. This is my favorite way to meditate when I can’t be alone.  No one has ever been the wiser.

Silence Strategy 4: Build silence into meetings.

Some workplaces have incorporated contemplative practices into their corporate culture. The rest of us have to be more creative in bringing stillness to work.  After giving yourself some silence before a meeting, share it in subtle ways with others.  Before the meeting starts, look around the room and offer a smile (or nod, or whatever other acknowledgement feels most natural), to the other people in the room. Do this with the intention to really SEE them.  You’ll be surprised what you notice.  Take a deep breath and use what you notice to begin the meeting. Between agenda items, provide 30 seconds to 2 minutes for people to reflect and write down any notes or ideas they have. Tell them you’ll save time at the end for these items.  See if you can extend the silence after people stop writing.

Silence Strategy 5: Take a deep breath (or two) before speaking.

This one can be HARD  and works in any conversation- even online ones.  So often we’re deciding what we want to say before we finish listing to what is being said. Pausing before speaking takes practice and you’ll be amazed at the results. The first few times I tried this in my work was when I was supposed to be “running” a meeting.  By pausing before I spoke I hardly said a thing after the introduction.  The meeting went along beautifully without my intervention, we accomplished everything we needed to, and I was able to listen deeply to the conversation. Added bonus, I freed myself from the burden of coming up with something smart to say all the time.   Ahhhh.

Silence Strategy 6:  Practice silence between tasks.

Some days I can be chugging trough my list of things to do and not even notice how much time has passed.  To be more present, I take a minute or two to relax between tasks.  Sometimes I recognize the next item on my list is not the most important task do or I’ll remember an idea I’d neglected to write down. Sitting with a sense of accomplishment for the small things is motivating during the times when it feels like nothing big gets done.

Silence Strategy 7: Have technology remind you to be mindful.

If you’re not up for self-propelled stillness, the editors of Mindful magazine have a solution. You can sign up for “Mindful Interrupters” delivered to your inbox or Twitter feed. Interrupters change frequently and are a playful way to bring you back to the present moment, which is really the whole point of stillness and silence. You can also find the interrupters on their web site.

Join me in 5 minutes of silence tomorrow at 9am Eastern. Those in the Pacific time zone can use the 5 minutes to try out Silence Strategy #1.

How do you build little moments of silence into your day? What do you learn from stillness?

Lighting a Fire in the Blood

I continue to be in awe of the Theory U process and the experiences and reflections brought about by ULab. This is not a lighthearted romp.  It’s captured me and many others. Writing is part of the journey so here goes.

Smartly, the course designers set us up with a full week (Week 0) of orientation.  Our work centered around setting goals and intentions for the course, connecting with other participants to form a case clinic coaching circle, and creating a shared experience through watching the documentary Fire in the Blood.

A little background…

The beginning of the U process about is breaking out of habitual patterns and seeing a system from others’ perspectives. A “sensing journey” is one tool to facilitate this shift in awareness. You can think of a sensing journey as a field trip designed to open the heart.  For ULab, Fire in the Blood was our sensing journey.  Film maker Dylan Mohan Gray generously allowed ULab participants free access to the film.  Fire in the Blood chronicles the systemic dysfunctions that prevented millions in Africa with AIDS from accessing life saving medications long after the cost of the medications dropped.

Image by DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile. http://mrg.bz/yfvrFO

Image by DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile. http://mrg.bz/yfvrFO

Rather than taking notes and gathering facts as I tend to do, in the spirit of ULab, I watched and listened with as open a heart as I could. The two hours I spent watching Fire in the Blood was a journey through the emotional landscape:  anger, disbelief, sorrow, hope, aching, compassion, relief.

It reminded me of seeing Roméo Dallaire speak about Shake Hands with the Devil, his account of being the force commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide.  My friend Andrea and I read Dallaire’s book and attended a talk he gave years ago. I was grateful for the ULab discussion boards after watching Fire in the Blood and know Andrea would have cried along with me this time, too.

One of the moments that brought me to tears was when medical staff told how they were forced to decide who would live and die because there was not enough medication for everyone in need.   If doctors determined I was the most appropriate person to receive the medication it would mean my family members would die.

Let me say that differently.

For you to live, people you love will die.


It’s unthinkable. Our hearts cannot bear that thought for long. It hurts too much.

Medical staff explain the situation to one man and ask if he will accept the medication.  He replies, “I accept with my whole heart.” His face and voice will linger long in my memory. I wonder what happened to him, to his family.

Here’s something beautiful so you can relax after all that. But don’t push that feeling away entirely- it’s instructive.

Image from Unsplash.com

Image from Unsplash.com


How do tragedies like this happen? How do these stories go unnoticed and untold? Lots of reasons.  It happens because our world is large and complex. It happens because it’s hard to ask questions, to connect, and to find the silence to discover what we know to be right. It happens because it feels like too big a job to create a world that does a better job at producing results more of us want and need.  It happens because knowing hurts.  We’re “busy”. It’s easy not to know. I didn’t. Not about this story. I might might not have known about Dallaire’s story had I not been living in Canada when the book was released.

The encouraging lesson from Fire in the Blood is that real people were able to make a difference. Some of them are  recognizable: U.S. President Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu.  More of them are everyday brave people like you and me.

That’s what the Theory U process and the ULab experience is about. It’s about uncovering these divides between how systems operate and what we want to bring about in the world.  Sitting with that disconnect and discomfort is part of the deal.  Importantly, we don’t stay there. The rest of the process is what we DO with what we learn.

The filmmakers let thousands of ULab participants see Fire in the Blood for free because sharing the story was more important than recovering the costs it took to make. I wholeheartedly (and brokenheartedly) recommend watching Fire in the Blood.  You can see the trailer here and can read more about how this story seemed to choose Dylan Mohan Gray here.  You can rent the film for the cost of one cup of coffee shop java ($1.75) and buy the film to stream and download anytime for about the cost of a latte and cookie ($8.25).

Watch with an open heart and have your hankie handy. If you have friend to cry with, even better.

We all have experiences that shift our understanding of the world and this was one of mine. What have you learned or experienced that allowed you to see the world in a different way?







What is this ULab you’re tweeting about?

If you follow me on Twitter, or happened to have noticed the Twitter widget down there,  you may be wondering what all this #ULab business is all about.

ULab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self is a MOOC offered by MITx through the edX platform. It is a course based on the work of Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT.

Scharmer’s books Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future provide theory and examples of a “social technology” designed to address the gap between the results we say we want and what we collectively create. Too often, we fall short of the vision and Theory U aims to help. You can read more about the books here.

I read both books last year and was immediately captivated. There’s solid, academic content in both with plenty of social science and economic theory to chew on. Fan’s of Peter Senge may appreciate that Senge is involved in Scharmer’s Presencing Instutite and Scharmer incorporates some of Senge’s ideas into Theory U.

What makes Scharmer’s approach especially attractive to me is that he puts the Heart, Mind, and Will at the center of his model.  Have you ever seen  “Heart” represented in a logic model or evaluation theory?  I haven’t.  Mind and Will don’t show up much either. These concepts are often disguised in mission statements, vision statements, and strategic plans.  Yet,  heart, mind, and will are unspoken actors in everything we do.  Who ever decided that it was unprofessional to talk about how passionate people are about the work they do anyway?  It’s possible to be passionate AND clear, inspired AND effective.

Creating change is as much about internal change as external action.  Scharmer provides a new language to talk about what matters in all sectors of society and offers tools and practices to create change in a deeply meaningful way.    Honest, deep conversations about what’s really going on would solve many problems in our homes, neighborhoods, programs, and organizations.   Scharmer is an action researcher.  He and his team didn’t offer the ULab course for free to as an ego boost or to create a broader fan base.  They’re offering the experience to create action and build a community.

I’m taking part in ULab because I think Scharmer’s work matters. It speaks to me and I wanted to explore these ideas and practices in a more powerful way than I can do alone.  There’s much that applies to evaluation practice and being an intentional, mindful human being- topics I care about. I’ll share more about Weeks 0, 1 and 2 in my next post.

Here is an amazing image by graphic facilitator extraordinaire, Kelvy Bird from the first live session of ULab 2 weeks ago.  It gives a nice overview of the course journey and what we’re up to.  It’s not too late to join if you’re curious.

ULab Live Session 1 Image by Kelvy Bird

ULab Live Session 1 Image by Kelvy Bird

To be clear, I have no connection to Otto Scharmer or the Presencing Institute other than being one of 20,000+ students taking the ULab course.