In the Palgrave Handbook of Learning for Transformation, my co-editors and I returned to the most common understanding of the meaning of Transformation– the classical Greek definition. Metamorphosis. As noted in the Handbook, the meaning of metamorphosis is a change in form or structure:

Form, in our view, includes meaning structures and frames of reference that are most commonly related to the process of transformative learning, while we also recognize form as structure, relationship, systems, cosmologies, conflicts, landscapes, and materiality, transformation unsettles common sense assumptions and opens new possibilities for forms of action.” (p.5)

But how do we make the practical journey between forms? Transitioning between forms is far from easy and what I characterize as Grey Zone Change. Fundamental to all forms of transformation are certain core skills: listening, questioning and co-creating across difference.

In this post, I summarize the skills of Transformational listening, Transformational questioning and Co-creating, without which innovation, bridging divides, transcending challenges and moving forward as a human society will not be possible. 

Transformational listening and questioning moves beyond techniques for listening and question-asking to a holistic sensing of the full context of the interaction or situation, in the past, present and future to develop a narrative understanding of the situation. I call these the shared practices that are the minimum specifications for navigating the grey zone. They are shared practices because everyone involved and interested in achieving a shared purpose must practice them:

Listening Deeply

Asking Powerful Questions

Co-Creating Actions

I have developed practices for these tools of transformation, influenced by the work of Chené Swart (2013, 2015) on Narrative Practices, Robert Marshak’s work on Deep Listening and Transforming Talk (Marshak 2004, 2020) and the community of Human Systems Dynamics Professionals as part of my praxis of Transformation:

Transformational Listening:

  1. Be willing to be transformed in the conversation.
  2. Be passionately interested in how people describe their experiences.
  3. Notice and resist automatic tendencies to interrupt, judge, think about solutions, or fuse with the storyteller. Notice these tendencies and practice letting others complete before chiming in.
  4. Think of and explore the implications of the narrative in the past, present, future.
  5. Listen for and use the vocabulary of the conversation (the language, text, ideas, images, narratives) to explore places where you are intrigued.
  6. Ask when you are not sure you understand.

Transformational Questioning. Ask open questions (starts with: who, what, when, where, why or how or proxies such as: “Tell me more about…”) that:

  1. are transparent, providing context based on the reason, purpose and direction of the conversation.
  2. you do not know the answers to.
  3. emerge from the discussion (not your pre-defined questions).
  4. detach each person from the “problem” in question.
  5. explore the assumptions, issues, and experiences that people raise.
  6. unlock the imagination and possibilities arising from the conversation.

Listening and questioning set the context for emergence and co-creation. However, co-creating actions requires using both skills as well as being willing to move beyond some of the dissonance and disagreements that can arise when seeking alignment to action. To co-create, I use the simple rules of inquiry that build adaptive capacity in complexity and in the Grey Zone of Change to guide action. I add the fifth rule of adaptive action, also from complexity thinking and Human Systems Dynamics:

  1. Turn judgment into curiosity.
  2. Turn disagreement into shared exploration.
  3. Turn defensiveness into self-reflection.
  4. Turn assumptions into questions.
  5. Turn fixed solutions into adaptive action (ask “What?” “So what?” and “Now what?).

These skills of course are easier said than done and as adults always learn better by doing, I offer a simple practice activity as follows (available in the Grey Zone Change Guideline and free workbook here):

Transformational Listening & Questioning in a group setting. Sit knee-to-knee and each:

  1. Share a story that most illustrates the lessons you are taking from your grey zone experiences.
  2. After each person shares, the others ask transformational questions that emerged from listening. Decide how many to ask each other depending on the time you have.
  3. After all have shared and asked questions, each can share one new insight gained.
  4. Ask: What is emerging and what are we called to now?

As Otto Scharmer & Katrin Kaufer write in Leading from the Emerging Future:

“At the moment when we reach the point of meltdown, we have a choice: We can freeze and revert to our deeply ingrained habits of the past, or we can stop and lean into the space of the unknown, lean into that which wants to emerge. This second possibility—to lean into and connect to our highest future potential—we refer to as presencing. As noted in the introduction, the word presencing merges the terms presence and sensing. It means to sense and operate from the presence of an emerging future field. As we connect with this field of heightened awareness, our attention morphs from slowing down, opening up, redirecting, and letting go to letting come, crystallizing, and embodying the new.”