Making Sense of Chaos with Social Presencing Theater (SPT)

“Today, in most social systems, we collectively produce results that no one wants. These results show up in the form of environmental, social, and cultural destruction. The ecological divide (which disconnects self from nature), the social divide (which disconnects self from other), and the spiritual divide (which disconnects self from self) shape the larger context in every large system change today”. Otto Scharmer. Senior lecturer, MIT.

The Chaos

Venezuela, December 2016.

The M.U.D. (The opposition alliance of political parties), had a great momentum going while it was trying to meet the necessary requirements for an early election revoking president Maduro’s mandate. However, the Supreme Electoral Council, composed of Maduro’s handpicked directors, outlawed that election. On sept 1st the M.U.D. convoked one of the most multitudinous demonstrations that had been made in Venezuela so far, in order to protest that unconstitutional ruling. However, they let that political asset slip away when they accepted the government’s invitation to a dialogue that had been mediated by The Vatican and four foreign ex-mandataries. It was a trap, because the government did not comply with the accords reached in the so-called dialogue. Consequently, the M.U.D. had the worst of both worlds, losing its political base, and the window of opportunity that had been opened before them. The so-called dialogue was a lifesaver for the government, which due to its incompetence had 80% of the population against it at a given moment in time. They now faced a weak opposition and a demoralized society. They got the breathing room that they wanted, and continued to exercise their power over the armed forces and the other “independent” branches of government, like the Judiciary and the Electoral powers. It was a very depressive moment for every other sector of the Venezuelan Society, because nobody could visualize an exit to the stranglehold the regime had, not only politically, but also in every other aspect of people’s life. It was a hopeless Christmas for everyone but for the government.

2017 up to date.

The National Assembly, under a new leadership began the year acting aggressively against the government in every field that the constitution allowed them to do so. Maduro reacted instructing the Supreme Court to outlaw the National Assembly. They did, and at that moment, he crossed the line that separated authoritarianism from a full-fledged dictatorship, calling the attention of the whole world to this corner of the planet, and making every democratic government cry foul play, as they watched Maduro’s democratic mask fall with a bang. Internally, that move galvanized the opposition against a common foe. The deputies of the National Assembly led the peaceful protests, with the whole support of the M.U.D., the Civil Society and the Common People. The government reacted as if the protestors were an invading foreign force. So far, they have viciously crushed every protest, repressing them with military and paramilitary forces, which have wreaked havoc on the civil population. The toll after 40 days of protesting amounts to 40 deaths, close to 2.000 injured, many of them in serious condition, and more than 2.000 detainees, who by the latest rule of Maduro’s Supreme Court, are going to be judged as “terrorists” by military courts- not civilian. Most of the casualties are young people, which makes it even more painful. Far from letting go of his thirst for power, one week ago Maduro formed a constitutional commission composed of his handpicked delegates. Their task is to write a new constitution that will give him unlimited powers for indefinite time. In other words, his aim is to turn Venezuela into another North Korea.

The reality of any Venezuelan citizen is disrupted everyday, several times a day. For instance, today (may 13th)the “Guardia Nacional” (The regime’s anti riot force) shut down two of the main highways in Caracas, 30 subway stations, and all the public Metrobús surface lines. All four million of us got our daily routine totally disrupted because, please guess: 1) Was there a CIA-Pentagon coordinated attack? 2) Was there an extraterrestrial invasion in progress? The answer is: None of the Above. They shut down the capital city because there was a senior citizens protest in a specific location, Plaza Brion in the Chacao district. Yes, that was the reason, no other. And by the way, that protest was repressed with pepper gas, with the expected result of widespread intoxication of senior citizens.

Please forgive me if you think that I am exaggerating, or that I am being biased. In either case you are right. I don’t even understand this reality myself, much less do I pretend that you do it. I am trying to describe the facts as objectively as I could. However, I am not an independent observer. I am just one of the more than 30 million participants in this very complex social system called Venezuela.

Making Sense Through The “U Process”

Social systems are a conglomerate of the complex interactions weaved by the participants in that system — their relationships, conversations, emotions, feelings, actions, expectations, intentions, consciousness, etc. Therefore, in order to analyze a social system you cannot apply a tool designed to measure linearly — from A to B to C. It is necessary to use a methodology that is capable of accessing information that cannot be perceived by traditional methods. That methodology should be able to access the information contained in “The Social Field”, which is the space where those nonlinear variables interact. During the last 20 years, a select group of researchers of the Presencing Institute, directed by MIT’s Senior Lecturers Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, have made giant advances in that area of research. Scharmer developed the Theory U, which is a process with five movements designed to change systems by accessing an experience called “Presencing” — sensing and actualizing the emerging future. One of the methods used in the Co-Sense stage of the U process is SPT (Social Presencing Theater).

Social Presencing Theater

The Presencing Institute defines Social Presencing Theater (SPT) “as a methodology, developed under the leadership of Arawana Hayashi, for understanding current reality and exploring emerging future possibilities. SPT can be practiced at the individual, group, organization, and larger social systems level. It is one of the most important and effective methods developed by the Presencing Institute, and has been used effectively for over ten years in business, government, and civil society settings, in places including Brazil, Indonesia, China, Europe and the United States. It is not “theater” in the conventional sense, but uses simple body postures and movements to dissolve limiting concepts, to communicate directly, to access intuition, and to make visible both current reality, and the deeper — often invisible — leverage points for creating profound change.” According to the developer of the U Theory, Otto Scharmer, “SPT allows a system to see itself, and compared to other analysis methods, is much faster and cheaper”.

There are three different modalities within SPT: “20 minute dance”, “Unstuck Exercise”, and “4D mapping”. We used 4D mapping in the analysis of the system about which I write in this article.

4D mapping.

“4D mapping explores how the highest aspiration in a system might come forward. We assume there is an underlying wisdom –in spite of the diverse values or goals of stakeholders in a system — that could come to the surface and be visible as we move from Sculpture 1 to 2. Participants apply mindfulness of body and awareness of the surrounding space. 4D mapping is not about acting out pre-conceived ideas or concepts we have about a system.

4D mapping is about surfacing and noticing what shifts in a system that might be significant in going from a current reality to an emerging future reality. Movement is based on what is actually emerging, not based on manipulation or what we think something should be”.

The SPT 4D mapping Experience

Marietta Perroni and me, from the Caracas ULab Hub, facilitated a SPT experience in Nov 2016, to a group of experienced coaches in a three hours seminar. They meet once a month in order to have an Appreciative Inquiry conversation called “Imagina a Venezuela” (Imagine Venezuela). During the first hour, I made an introduction to Theory U, explaining succinctly the journey through the U Process. We had a short break, and in the second half, we had the SPT experience. I explained to the participants that this time we were not going to imagine Venezuela; instead, we would experience something different, we would listen to her through SPT in a 4D mapping exercise.

The Roles

There were nine of us. I was the facilitator, and Marietta assisted me. She was the scribe and timekeeper. The other seven were the players. The roles represented the key stakeholders in the Venezuelan society: The Youth; The Civil Society; The Common People; The Government; The National Assembly; the Armed Forces and The Alliance of Opposition Parties (MUD).

Due to the extreme political polarization that is going on right now in Venezuela, we assigned the roles in a random lottery with the names written in a little piece of paper, which we bent to keep the players from knowing them. We wanted the experience to be metaphorical and intuitive. We did not want any conscious judgements to take place that would influence anyone about her/his role in the exercise. After having assigned the roles, we asked each player to place the little piece of paper close to their hearts. Then we made a very profound mindfulness exercise in order to be sure that we were properly present in the experience, and that the Venezuelan Social Field was going to reveal itself through us.

We asked the players to do the first sculpture, paying close attention to their feelings, to the movement and tension in their bodies and to the images that came to their minds. After the first sculpture was completed, we asked them to wander around and reflect. Then we asked them to make the second sculpture.

First sculpture experience.

One woman sat down looking at the empty space before her. Another one put her hands in a shell like manner around her ears so that she could listen better. Someone else stretched her hands in front of her as if wanting to make contact- touch someone. Other person held a very precarious yoga equilibrium pose — the tree. There was a man who was just sitting there as if he was indifferent to the whole thing (For a moment I thought that he had not understood the instructions, and then I realized that he was making a sculpture too). A woman was sitting while holding something with her arms, as if carrying a child. Another one was looking around as if expecting to be given directions.

Second sculpture experience.

The woman, who sat looking at the emptiness of space, lowered her head and put it between her hands, as if hiding it. The one who had her arms reaching out joined the other who was trying to listen, and advanced together. The woman doing the yoga pose of the tree, adopted the pose of the warrior II, signaling a direction, and the woman who appeared to be expecting directions, joined her from behind in a train like manner. The man, who was indifferent before, now was standing farther away from the other players and observed the whole scene, still looking indifferent. The woman, who had appeared to have a child in her arms, now nurtured the baby with love.

The Roles Revealed. The Expressions, Movements, and Feelings.

The roles were revealed after the second sculpture had been completed. Upon knowing their role, every one of the players said the first word that came to mind. Here are their reactions.

The Youth. Uncertainty. She remained sitting and looked isolated. “I was looking ahead to the empty space, and then I put my head between my hands, and bent it to my knees. I felt pain between my eyes”.

M.U.D. (Alliance of opposing political parties). Confusion. “I held a very precarious yoga equilibrium pose — the tree. I was standing on one foot, which bore all my weight, and over which I was trying hard to equilibrate my body. I felt extreme tension on my right foot, and made an effort to keep my position. I invoked the power of God. I moved from that position to the Warrior II, it felt natural, I was signaling a direction ahead. I felt firm on the ground, but at times, I felt tension on the arm with which I was signaling ahead”.

Civil Society. Listening. “I put my hands behind my ears like this (a shell like manner), then I asked myself. “What can I do for them?” I looked for someone else and found her (the Common People) reaching out. We joined her and advanced together”.

The Common People. Force. “I wanted to increase my area of influence. I saw her, (Civil Society) and joined her. I felt that we had ahead of us the task of building something good together, with a collective intention”.

The National Assembly. Us. She begins to speak very emotionally with tears in her eyes. “I thought a lot about us, about the country. I felt like coming home. I returned to this building for the first time in 20 years. In that opportunity, I was doing social work, and now I return today to do this exercise. I feel that now more than ever I should be doing what I had done before. To work for Venezuela. Could it be that I am the mother who takes a dying child (Venezuela) in her arms to nurture her?”

The Armed Forces. Fear. “I felt fear, not of the population towards me, but fear of myself — of not doing what I had to do. Fear of not having a guide, a direction. I was walking without direction, erratically. The word connection came to my mind. I needed to connect. When I saw her (M.U.D) signaling a direction, I thought, “Here is my connection!” and joined her.

The Government. Power. “I was relaxed, observing how things are developing. Then, I stood up thinking in the opportunity to get more power”.

The Generative Dialogue.

The Youth of the country are looking at the empty space before them. Finding nothing, they hold their aching heads with their hands, and sit in a position signaling despair.

The M.U.D. is keeping a very precarious equilibrium of the different parties that compose that organization. Somehow, they make a supreme effort to resist the internal tensions that arise constantly inside that organization and manage to keep the union from falling apart. Overcoming their own confusion, they adopt a firm position and signal the direction to go, regardless of the tensions felt inside. This creates a new hope, and eventually they are joined by the armed forces.

The Civil Society listens to the needs of the country in all aspects of society, and look for ways to help and join forces with other sectors. Its capacity to listen emphatically motivates the Common People to work with it in order to solve their mutual problems.

The Common People, wanting to increase their area of influence realize that by joining forces with the Civil Society, they can create a collective intention and work together to solve their common problems.

The National Assembly wants to work for Venezuela, and holds in its hands the future of the country. However, it is incapable to implementing it because the regime has stripped it of all its constitutional powers. However, the deputies, the majority of whom are under 40 years old, have taken to the streets in order to protest with the rest of the citizens.

The Armed Forces are in constant fear — fear of the government, of the opposition, of their fellow mates, of not having a direction — a guide. They act erratically. Their ranks need to connect to other sectors of society apart from their fanatic leaders. When those ranks form a critical mass and observe a clear direction, they will overcome their fears and join the forces that go in that direction.

The Government is relaxed, regardless of the humanitarian crisis that the country is experiencing. There are two reasons, either they are not aware of it, or worse, they don’t care. They only care about finding ways, legally or illegally to weaken the opposition and wield more power.

Final Comments

As I said before, nonlinear systems are complex. I tried to summarize the more relevant facts that affect the system between the moment that the analysis was made and the present moment. But, we should take into consideration that time is totally relative in nonlinear systems. All the interactions of a social system collapse in an instant , and the reality that we sensed before, has already changed. As a matter of fact, as I am writing this paper, the reality is changing. However, time does not exist in the Social Field as we know it — linear. The Social Field expresses the emerging future as a possibility. It is up to us to act, and make that emerging future an emerging reality. So, let’s act on that.

I kindly ask the patient readers of this article to make any questions that they feel will help them make some sense of this situation. I also ask my fellow Coaches, Change Makers and U Labers to make any observations about our use of SPT in this system. I am sure that all of us will be enriched in our knowledge and mutual understanding if we have this conversations going. Thanks in advance to everyone.


Helio Borges



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Helio Borges

Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges