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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hinkleman

A Learning Journey to Berlin, The Presencing Institute and Theory U

A little over 10 years ago, I was introduced to Theory U while attending the Toronto Summer Institute. John O'Brien, one of the most influential thinkers, teachers and writers in my life, led a 3-day course working with Theory U, a framework and social technology created by Otto Scharmer out of MIT. John weaved the framework into the systems we find ourselves working in as a means of thinking about and approaching our work with a different energy. After a couple years of dipping my toe in the water, finding myself in and out of conversations around Theory U, I decided to dive fully in and purchased Otto Scharmer's book "Theory U: Leading From The Future As It Emerges." Now, for those who have read this work, or at least attempted to read this work, you may feel the same way I did while grinding my way through the book: incredible research, innovative framework, nuggets of gold, yet seemingly buried in an onslaught of data. I realize and understand the importance of disseminating all the research, a transparent lens into the mechanics leading to the eventual theory itself...but my brain works and functions differently and I found myself sort of lost with the material. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people such as John O'Brien and one of his co-conspirators and allies, Beth Mount. Between the two of them, their writings, applications of Theory U in their own work and the opportunity to be a part of what we called The Northern California Learning Institute, a year-long project with 13 organizations in the far northern state, I began to deepen my understanding of the original material I read from Scharmer's first book. Several conversations later, mentoring, encouragement from John, Beth and my work partner here in San Diego, Beth Gallagher, I found myself on one of the most transformative Learning Journeys of my life...a voyage to Berlin, Germany to attend The Presencing Institute.

In April 2019, I traveled to Berlin, Germany to take part in the Presencing Institute Foundation Program. My intention in attending the Foundation Program was to immerse myself in Theory U and Presencing as a means of deepening my understanding, while tapping into the richness of being with 75 people from 21 different countries with like minds and hearts. Having spent, at this point, about 9 years in and around the material, with several opportunities to apply the framework in my own work, life and beyond, I arrived in Germany with a sense of peace and openness to what could come forth. I also need to mention THE most important source of support in this endeavor and all my journeys wife Jody. She supports me to evolve as a human in any role I carry, whether it be husband, father, brother, friend, teacher or writer. "Sure, go take off for 9 days to Germany while I work full-time and take care of our 3 kids." This is not a direct quote, but you get the thank you Jody for your unwavering support. So here's an attempt at walking through Theory U with you on this post, framed through my experience with the Presencing Institute and a project I am currently working on in California.

Systems Change

Back in March of this year, a long-time friend and phenomenal human being, Joe Donofrio reached out to me with an idea..."Hey man, let's use this opportunity of being stuck/slowed down to collaborate on something..." I believe the initial invitation felt like this...and in true Joe-fashion, it came with a heartfelt energy. We've been collaborating on projects over the years, but this invitation felt a bit bigger. I immediately replied with "Yes...and, I'm going to loop in my work partner, Beth Gallagher to have an initial conversation." After a few targeted calls, we decided to prototype and co-initiate a learning gathering called Threshold For Change. "Prototype...what the hell is that?!" Well if you stick with me here, we'll get to that as we launch out of the right side of the U. "The right side of the U, what the hell is that?!" Again...stay with me here.

In previous pieces, I've written about our current state of affairs as a nation during the Pandemic along with the resounding energy around Social Justice. Essential vs. non-essential thinking is at the crux of many conversations. In the context of our work, Joe, Beth and I all identify as 'service providers' in the state of California. Joe, in fact, co-founded the first Supported Living agency in the state...CHOICESS, in Los Angeles. Life Works is the agency Beth started here in San Diego, 2004...I came along in 2007. Life Works and CHOICESS are agencies committed to helping people with developmental disabilities live fully inclusive and actualized lives in homes of their own and in neighborhoods of choice. Both of these agencies work within the greater Service System of the state of California. Utilizing this universal PAUSE, Covid-19, Threshold For Change invited about 50 different people from all over the state, intentionally targeting every region possible. The make-up of the 50 people, identify as service providers, people experiencing disability, professors, teachers, family members, employment specialists, administrators from the Regional Centers and representatives from the State Council. Our intention is to have as diverse a cross-section of the service system present as possible, while covering as much of the state as possible. We've designed a series of four separate Zoom gatherings with the intention that after the four calls, these 50 people head out into their local communities, rally more supporters and allies, and form Local Hubs that will co-create learning opportunities at the local level and collaborate on new prototypes for change in their communities. Threshold For Change ignites a fire and Local Hubs spread it...all in the name of Systems Change. What can we let go of in California that is non-essential...that which kills the human spirit in the name of policies, procedures and funding? Can we create the space for something beautiful to be born? That is Threshold For Change, in a it's time to back up.

Above you'll see a graphic I created throughout the first day of the Presencing Institute Foundation Program (PFP). It's sort of all encompassing, with elements deepened throughout the 5 days. Off to the left, you'll see 3 important points regarding Systems Change:

  1. We cannot understand the system unless we change the system.

  2. We cannot change the system unless we shift our consciousness.

  3. We cannot shift consciousness unless we allow the system to see & sense itself.

In the context of Threshold For Change, the 50 people present on the calls are slowing down to see and sense each other, with the understanding that each of us as individuals, in concert with one another, make up the very system we are out to change. Step one, shift our individual consciousness...step two, shift our collective consciousness.

The Three Divides

Theory U, at its core, is about a shift in consciousness. Otto Scharmer invites us to move from an Ego-Awareness (Me) to an Eco-Awareness (We). What this requires, in my understanding, is first to look within ourselves, at the individual level. We must "bend the beam of observation" back onto ourselves as a starting point. Scharmer frames this self-reflection into 3 Divides:

  1. The Ecological Divide: Self vs. Nature (or the System)

  2. The Social Divide: Self vs. Other (or others within the System)

  3. The Spiritual Divide: Self vs. Self (or the Self you preclude from emerging)

Am I making choices in my life and work that perpetuate archaic patterns of thought and beliefs about what is possible for people? Am I making choices and leaning into action that create an Us vs. Them friction? Am I making choices and leaning into action that preclude me from fully emerging as my True Self? The self that taps into the source of my generativity...that which makes me alive?! These questions are important to ask and this analogy of the divides lands deeply for me and hopefully sheds some light on where we need to pay attention when beginning a Systems Change journey.

Presencing and Theory U

Presencing is what Scharmer created as a way of combining Sensing and Presence. It is at the bottom of the U journey that starts at the top left of the image you see to the left. At the beginning of the U, we are called to stop and simply 'Observe.' We begin to listen and see with eyes and ears of Open Mind. After long periods of time in observation, we start to 'let go' of things, practices and thoughts that don't serve us or the greater social field/system we find ourselves a part Open Heart, filled with Compassion. Once we have let go, we continue moving down the U and find we have space to 'Sense' what it is in the field we see and feel all around Open Will, filled with Courage. These steps/slide down the U find us in stillness, present with an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will. We tap into our stillness, finding our source as we understand it within ourselves in 'Presencing'. It is here where we begin to 'Crystallize' what we want to emerge. It is a call to operate, not from past judgments or habits, downloading old information and perpetuating assumptions...rather, a call to operate from an emerging future that wants to be born. We've observed what currently exists. We've let go of non-essential, divide-widening beliefs and actions. We've sensed what envelopes us and tapped into our source knowing. Now crystallizing a future wanting to emerge and BAM! 'Prototype'! Much of the U process calls for us to slow down and be present...the last part is 'Go', or as Scharmer puts it, "Act in an instant." It is by and large, an iterative process for lasting change. So when Joe reached out, we had collectively been on the left side and bottom of the U for quite some time. So BAM! Threshold For Change! Prototype for change in California...and the Local Hubs will be called to prototype and iterate as we move forward. For now, let's be present with this material.

Absencing is the polar opposite of Presencing, and something important to be aware of. We unconsciously default to Absencing, at least I can say I do. It's easy to operate from old habits and assumptions. It's easy to download what you hear from those around you, not take it in and move along without empathy, courage, curiosity or compassion.

This graphic to the left shows the trajectory of Absencing. You start with 'Downloading'...listening with fear, and a Closed Mind. Following upwards to 'Deceiving' which operates from a place of hate and a Closed Heart. Arriving up further at 'De-sensing' often fueled by ignorance and a Closed Will. In an Absencing cycle, oppositely of Presencing when you work your way up through Crystallizing and Prototyping, you spend your time and energy 'Blaming' others, 'Destroying' and in a pattern of 'Self Destruction'. For a deeper dive into the practical application of Absencing, check out this piece from Otto Scharmer from his Field of the Future Blog. It's not completely about Absencing, but he touches on it throughout the post: We indeed make choices between Absencing and Presencing every day, but how do we pay attention to these choices?

Attending to the 3 Voices

Theory U brings to light 3 Voices present within each of us. These voices, if not attended to, will block and preclude us from operating from our highest future potential. Like all elements of the U process, we are called to be mindful and aware of the forces that lurk in our minds and hearts if we go on about our daily lives unconsciously. These Voices are:

  1. The Voice of Judgment

  2. The Voice of Cynicism

  3. The Voice of Fear

Let's give a visual to this as it pertains to Theory U.

To the right, you'll find where we begin to attend to the first Voice...the Voice of Judgment. If you remember the top of the U from earlier, this is where we 'Observe'. If we are to observe effectively, we must stop downloading, suspend the Voice of Judgement and listen with an Open Mind. So, in order to have an Open Mind, we need to Suspend the Voice of Judgment...again Scharmer working with the idea of being mindful at every level of this process...working in polarities.

Our attention now moves to the second voice...the Voice of Cynicism. Here we Redirect the Voice of Cynicism in hopes of being present with an Open of compassion. We can't possibly operate from a place of compassion and understanding, without redirecting the voice of cynicism...the 'yeah, BUT' energy. Having an Open Heart embraces the idea of 'yes, AND' energy.

Once we've attended to the Voices of Judgment and Cynicism, cracks open for us to listen and sense into what is around us with Open Minds and Open Hearts...but there exists the most daunting of all the voices, The Voice of Fear. In letting go of the Voice of Fear, we are able to move forward into the field with an Open Will. We are able to move forward full of courage, which again, is the opposite of fear. Polarities abound with Scharmer's work, and for me, this is important in the grasping and understanding of the framework itself. It doesn't just lead us blindly into a quick-fix or solution or standard equation. Rather, Theory U begs us to go within and acknowledge old habits, patterns and auto-pilot, asleep functioning. We must be awake to the reality of our current condition and pay attention to everything present, mindfully. So if we are to interface with the world around us with an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will, we must first suspend the Voice of Judgment, redirect the Voice of Cynicism and let go of the Voice of Fear.



In this clip, student and follower of Otto Scharmer's work, Terry Chapman eloquently speaks about our 'capacities' as he calls them in the context of Theory U. He also talks about the polarities of attending to the Voices as a means of Opening the Mind, Heart and Will. He shares a poem he wrote in a time of disruption:

Each new day as I set out on this sun-scorched path,

I pause by the well, fed by love's stream, to fill my soul's reservoir with blessing.

Into a dry and weary land, I carry the canteen of intention,

From which I shall draw, when faced with long spells of rejection.

And if by chance, or seduced by some mirage,

I find myself lost in a parched place,

I will turn once more to my canteen, now a grail, to be refreshed for the journey home.

Terry goes on to talk about how we all, here, now, understand that there is a better way forward. A way that can and will bring lasting change. I particularly love the imagery of carrying a "canteen of intention" with us as a resource, or reminder of what we've set out to do while we walk along the "sun-scorched path." Intentions, however, are only as valuable as the attention we pay to them.

At the top of this image you'll find a quote used often in Scharmer's writing and reinforced heavily at the Presencing Institute. It comes from Bill O'Brien and reads "The success of any intervention is entirely dependent on the interior condition of the intervener." This is a powerful sentiment...and critical. Before we go leaping into solving the problems we may see in and around the System, we must first, as previously mentioned, 'bend the beam of observation' onto ourselves, remembering we as individuals comprise the collective system. So our collective awareness is paramount in affecting sustainable change. This is very much present for our Threshold For Change initiative. We are just now sitting with one another, settling in and listening with Open minds, Open hearts and Open wills...leading toward setting both individual and collective intentions.

What becomes paramount, after we set these intentions, is to have a high quality of Attention to them. What I've learned in my reading and studying of Theory U and from my time in Berlin at the Presencing Institute, is this ordering of elements: Intention activates Attention, Attention activates Action. Another way of thinking about this, is around energy. Energy follows our attention. So if I set an intention to write, then pay attention to all the things around the house I need to get done, or that I'm tired, or that I've got too much on my plate to sit and write, is it likely I'll actually write? If I set an intention to write and pay attention to the writing itself by sitting in stillness, by sensing what wants to emerge, crystallize it and act in an instant...then voila! You're reading this piece right now. On a collective scale, with Threshold For Change, we've got to pay close and high-quality attention to any and all intentions that come budding forth...our collective attention will then yield collective energy and action!

Levels of Listening

One of the most important, foundational elements of Theory U and Presencing comes from an understanding of the 4 Levels Of Listening:

  1. Downloading

  2. Factual

  3. Empathic

  4. Generative

Once again, blending into the fabric of Theory U and Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will, the levels of listening correspond seamlessly. Downloading is our default. It is where we listen with closed minds, reconfirming old opinions and judgments...just waiting for our turn to speak. Factual (Noticing Differences) begins to Open up our Mind by observing and suspending the Voice of Judgement. We disconfirm old data and confirm new data with a sense of curiosity. Empathic (Emotional Connetion) begins to Open up our Heart by redirecting the Voice of Fear. We start to see through another person's eyes with compassion. Generative (From the future wanting to emerge) begins to Open up our Will by letting go the Voice of Fear. We connect to an emerging future whole: a shift in Identity and Self. This Level Four, Generative Listening is where we fully embody the transformation of consciousness from Ego, to Eco. This is where the magic happens. This is where we have an awareness that my presence and actions within the greater social field/system have a direct impact on the greater whole. It starts with my individual awareness and hopefully evolves into a collective awareness.


I've been working with and exposed to metaphors quite a bit during Covid-19 life. In a recent piece written by John O'Brien, he uses the metaphor of cracks and incorporates lyrics from a song written by Leonard Cohen, "Anthem." One of the lines written by Cohen reads, "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in." O'Brien continues on in his piece, "By attending to the present, stepping away from crowds that reproduce oppression, finding voice, and accepting the insecurity of refugee status, hearts will move to love. Perfect plans and errorless performance are beyond our reach, but thankfully imperfect offerings will do to let in the light."

This speaks to the iterative process. We are not in search of perfection. We are inviting people to step into a world where we are able to get to Generative Listening and Dialogue. We are inviting people into a space where we can listen to each other empathically. We are inviting people into a space where we can find stillness with ourselves...tap into our interior conditions and lean into operating from a future that wants to be born, rather than operating from past habits of downloading and confirming old data. By attending to the intentions we set while we find ourselves wedged in these cracks, cracks offering light, we come to an understanding that we, the very people that make up the social field/system we are called to change, provide the light we seek with every step we take into the darkness of the unknown.

A Brief Reflection

While in Berlin to attend the Presencing Institute Foundation Program, I squeezed in a day on either side to take in as much history, story and art of Berlin. It goes without saying, German history carries with it some of the worst of humanity in our history as a people on earth. Dictated by a monster, people here were forced to fall in line with the genocide of over 12 million people. This photo is one of many monuments placed around the city of Berlin. It is a piece of the actual Berlin Wall. It may have been easy for Berlin, host to the Berlin wall from 1961 to 1989, with the eventual destruction and fall in 1991, to ignore its history and act as if nothing had happened, in what would be one of the biggest blind spots of all time. The Wall, amongst other meanings, stood for the oppression, destruction and the devaluing of a progressive and inclusive society in Germany. From my experience in Berlin, and I don't speak for the rest of Germany, the city has leaned into and embraced the past in a way in which it acknowledges the horror of what happened during the holocaust and honors all lives lost. Berlin decided to not hide from their past, but learn from it. I found the energy to be one of authentic transparency. It's clear the city wants to use the past to help reframe its future...honoring what took place, while attempting to move forward from a future that wants to emerge.

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