The Learning Lunch podcast explores ideas, approaches and social innovations – creating opportunity for non-profit organisations’ teams to discover what others are learning and space to reflect on what these insights might mean for their own strategy and programme implementation.

As civil society, we see ourselves as drivers of change. But, sometimes we can get so bogged down in the day-to-day humdrum of our work, that we lose our energy and drive to explore new terrain – to find new ways of doing things. We also sometimes lose sight of the inner progression that is happening in ourselves, and our role in manifesting the future.

Developed by Otto Scharmer, Theory U is an approach to creating change based on a process of inner knowing and social innovation. Professor Scharmer says: “When you deal with managing change, the bulk of the job is moving people from a “silo view” to a “systems view” – or, as we would say, from an egosystem awareness to an ecosystem awareness. In fact, what surprises me most is how reliably we can create conditions that allow for that kind of shift in awareness to happen. You can’t manufacture it. You can’t mold it like a piece of metal by hammering on it from the outside. But you can create a set of inner and outer conditions that allows a group, an organisation, or a system to make that move, to sense and see themselves from the emerging whole”. He continues: “There is a distinction between two types of cognition: normal (downloading from existing mental frameworks) versus a deeper level of knowing … to activate the deeper level of knowing, one has to go through a three-step process:  


To help us understand Theory-U, we spoke to Hans van der Veen, a Clinical Psychologist who founded the Klein Karoo U.lab, which is based on the principles of Theory U. The Klein Karoo U.lab has taken on interesting community projects, including a Theory-U process with one of the high schools in Oudtshoorn to see if the participants who were teachers, parents, learners, could create approaches that would bring positive change to the school. With Hans, is Lisl Barry, a parent at Oudtshoorn High School, who participated in that process and who shares her experience and what she thinks they achieved at Oudtshoorn High School by using the Theory-U process.

Hans van der Veen founded the Klein Karoo U.lab hub in 2017. He is a clinical psychologist and photographer. Through the lab, Hans wanted to create a space for people to connect, have meaningful con­ver­sations, learn together, explore possible solutions to challenges in our society and build communities. The lab is based on the principles of Theory U, an awareness-based change methodology created by Prof Otto Scharmer, lecturer, author and innovator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. U.lab focuses on personal development and societal systems change. You can read more about Hans and the Klein Karoo U.lab here.

Lisl Barry is an artist and an Oudtshoorn High School parent who have gone through the Theory U process with Hans, and has some valuable insight to share based on her own experience of the process.

Print a copy of this introduction here.

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The four levels of listening are: 


This is the most basic and habitual form of listening. It is very direct, and usually only occurs when the individual is familiar with what they are hearing/being told, and are therefore only listening to confirm what they already know, or their current opinion, which is likely not to change. Everything they are hearing is being projected onto preconceptions of the situation, and is reflecting the past rather than the present moment.

Factual Listening

This is the next stage, which involves listening with an entirely open mind and without any presumptions or prior judgements. Individuals employing factual listening are attentive to new ideas and data, and are accepting of any differences from what they already know. The outcome is that their opinions or views on a situation may be altered by new information which is now available to them. This is good for scientists, or individuals in an analytics situation,
but is still not suitable for those who need to be more visionary, such as leaders.

Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening requires a yet deeper level of listening, and needs the individual at hand to have a certain level of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to truly connect with the individual who is being listened and to
see the world, situation, subject or opinion as they do, through their eyes, and provides them with an emotional connection to the speaker. This provides the listener with alternative perspectives which can help to sculpt and define their decision-making.

Generative Listening

This is the highest, most informative level of listening, and is a very important skill for leaders to learn. It requires the individual to gain a connection with the best future that they can; an emerging and developing future, or possible futures. This subsequently results in a profound shift and a truly deep sense of knowing. This can be used to envisage individual development, and can also be used to design and plan organisational change.

Below Professor Otto Scharmer explains the levels of listening:


Helpful links


Theory U’s six principles are: 

  1. Energy follows attention. 
  2. We have to go through a process that deals with three main movements, or “inner gestures”: 1. Observe, observe, observe; 2: Retreat and reflection, allow the inner knowing to emerge; 3. Act in an instant. 
  3. This three-stage process only works if we cultivate the inner instruments: Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Will. 
  4. At the source of this inner cultivation process are the two root questions of creativity: Who is my Self? What is my Work? 
  5. This process is the road less traveled because the moment you begin, you are going to face three enemies that prevent you from accessing your deeper sources of creativity: Voice of Judgment, Voice of Cynicism, Voice of Fear. 
  6. This opening process is not only important to do as an individual; you need to hold the space to go through the same process on a collective level. 


In Theory-U, exploring the future by doing “Act Fast, Fail Fast, Learn Fast” is key.