4 Levels of Awareness

The collaborative process is enhanced when all participants can access a deeper level of awareness. What we see and what we hear usually guide awareness during collaborative meetings. Let’s consider the example of listening. Let’s call the first level of listening downloading. It describes habitual behavior and thought and results in “same old, same old” behaviors and outcomes. This type of listening originates from the center of our habits, from what we already know from past experience. People in conflict are usually caught at this level and struggle to move towards deeper, more productive levels of awareness and attention.

In contrast, level 4 listening, called presencing, (combining being present and sensing “what is and what could be”) represents a state of mind in which the circle of attention widens and a new reality enters the horizon and comes into being. In this state, listening originates outside the world of our preconceived notions. We feel as if we are connected to, an operating from, a wider sphere of influence.

As the presence of this heightened state of attention deepens, time seems to slow down, space seems to open up, and the experience of oneself shifts from a single point (ego) into a heightened presence and stronger connection to the surrounding sphere (eco). Examples of this shift are seen when a sports team raises its level of play to be in the zone or when a jazz ensemble finds its groove. It also happens during collaborative dialogues where a once conflicted couple shifts toward a cooperative understanding and level of agreement.

To transition securely and successfully, couples must face and explore themselves, a.k.a. the U-Journey. But why is this U-Journey the road less traveled? Why is it that most people are aware of this constructive conversational process yet rarely engage with it, especially during divorce proceedings? Because the moment we commit ourselves to go on this U-Journey, we start to encounter our three principal enemies: the voice of doubt and judgment (VoJ: shutting down the open mind), the voice of cynicism (VoC: shutting down the open heart), and the voice of fear (VoF: shutting down the open will).

Create or Destruct

Let’s unpack these enemies to appreciate the power they have in derailing the collaborative process. The image above depicts the choices available to all participants within the collaborative process. The voice of judgment, cynicism, and fear can quickly shift the conversation from “creation” towards “destruction.” Thus, having the “presence” of mind, heart, and will is imperative to successful collaboration.

The collaborative process always starts by “attending to the crack.” Where do we meet the future first? “Seek it with your hands. Don’t think about it, feel it” is the essential instruction that Bagger Vance gives to Junah in the Robert Redford movie Bagger Vance. The future shows up first in our feelings and through our hands, not in our abstract analysis. “Attending to the crack” means attending to the openings, the challenges, and the disruptions where we feel the past ending and the future wanting to begin; in other words, “the obstacle is the way.”

Collaborative professionals are in the business of holding the space for transforming the fields of conversation from debate toward dialogue and collective creativity. A higher-level conversation like this requires higher-quality containers and holding spaces. Transforming the quality of conversation in a divorcing couple means transforming the quality of their relationship and thought—that is, the quality of tomorrow’s results. The Participation Agreement within the Collaborative Process becomes the qualitative framework that contains this constructive dialogue format.

Strengthening the sources of presencing in order to avoid the destructive dynamics of absencing is Scharmer’s recommendation. What emerges from the divorce process is the interplay of two powerful social fields: presencing and absencing. The field of presencing works by opening the mind, the heart, and the will. We know that there are plenty of inspiring examples of this process across the planet. But those who face conflict, threat and the pain of loss become gripped by the more dominant field of absencing. They quickly get stuck in the idea that there is only “one truth,” and position themselves in an “us versus them” posture and then become frozen inside one rigid identity rather than operating from an open will that seeks collaboration.

Divorcing couples live in the tension of these two fields. They no longer are united as one “we system” but now operate as two separate I’s. Sometimes they can access their highest future possibility (presencing). But every now and then they lose it and get stuck in old patterns of downloading (absencing). They are torn between these two fields, and we as collaborative professionals need to learn how to strengthen their grounding in the field of presencing. Their new reality emerges continuously from the interplay of these two forces: the field of presencing that gives birth to something new, and the field of absencing that can destroy it.

The pain of divorce usually embeds couples in preoccupation with “what was,” while distracting them from leaning towards “what could be.” The collaborative process is designed to guide the couple up the right side of the U by focusing on the emerging future as they face necessary limits and shape creative agreements.

The uncertain future triggers fear for most couples during this stressful period of change. It’s not realistic to seek certainty and predictability during this state of flux. VUCA is a recent term capturing this in-between period characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The collaborative professional team prides itself on efficiently navigating VUCA by helping divorcing couples shape a new and realistic emerging future.

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