What is Theory U?

A Methodology for Change

To be effective, our listening and dialogue processes within the Shambhala community need to encourage us to deepen our awareness, so as to identify root issues rather than working only with symptoms. And they need to lead to action, not merely ideas: ways to prototype new tools, processes, and structures that allow us to explore the future by doing and learning together.

These objectives sum into a need for a well-designed social change methodology: a structured way to conduct our listening and dialogue so that they have the best chance of meeting our goals. 

How Theory U works

Theory U is an awareness-based social change methodology for encouraging needed change and innovation in a complex system.

A Theory U process moves through a “U”:

    1. Moving down the “left side” of the U in a deepening process of listening: relaxing rigid assumptions, finding common intent, and sensing the workings of the system from a space of deep receptivity and openness.
    2. The “base” of the U: presencing, a collective space of openness that helps reveal both the current reality and the future that wants to emerge through connection to shared wisdom.
    3. Moving up the “right side” of the U in a process of action, or learning through doing: identifying, prototyping, and refining the future possibilities that emerge from the presencing process.

The overall Theory U journey is one of deepening into a shared space of openness, allowing new possibilities to emerge from that open space, and then quickly trying out, testing, and refining those possibilities.

Explore the three Movements of the U:

    1. Co-Sensing and Deep Listening (as articulated by CTR student Francisco Varela)
    2. Co-Presencing and the U of the Four Dignities
    3. Co-Creating through Crystallizing and Prototyping

Listening and dialogue

As discussed in these brief audio and video clips, the heart of Theory U is Dialogue in Hubs and Coaching Circles. These practices provide rich opportunities to develop our capacities for collective transformation.

The quality of our listening is a central element of these capacities:

You may read about Theory U at https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u, or listen to a short audio explanation by Dian Marie Hosking here.

A few things Theory U is *not*

    • “More talk” or “just dyads.” Theory U is a process that is enacted over and over: listening deeply and choosing ideas to prototype and test quickly to learn through doing
    • A replacement for the work we’re already doing; Theory U can and must be adapted to what we are already doing; we don’t need to “start over” or discard any of our work to date
    • A deep conflict-resolution, trauma-healing, or restorative justice process; those additional methodologies are compatible with Theory U, and may be needed in the future
    • A defense against the unknown; as always, there are no guarantees that everyone’s aspirations will be met, nor will we ever find total agreement on difficult topics; however, Theory U can help us find common ground
    • A magic bullet; we ourselves will have to enact new ways of working together; Theory U is simply a methodology designed to help align hearts, minds, and actions toward common goals, and to help build enthusiasm and momentum for the future

Theory U is not a monolithic structure that all existing work must be “made to fit” within. Rather, it is an invitation: to explore how this approach to change can help working groups, local centers, and the community at large.