When You and the Group Are in the “Abyss”: What to Do About It


Otto Scharmer and his team have been exploring a model called Theory U for several decades. More and more I find myself drawn to it as a metaphor for the journey I go on with a group. The Theory U team speak of a great divide, a chasm which we must cross with a group – sometimes referred by them as the “Abyss”. This gap, or abyss is one I have found myself in many, many times with client groups. The problem for me is when I am in the abyss together with the group, I temporarily doubt our ability to get out intact and whole again. This “abyss” feeling happens at several times in my experience –the first one is in the preparation stage with the client when I realize the task is much more complicated than I thought. The second occurs just before I begin the meeting. I get a pit feeling in my stomach and dread getting started. THE third and most challenging time however, often occurs in the last 60-90 minutes. If I were to be honest – I might call the last hour after a famous American film (The Agony and the Ecstasy). There is an hour (or more) of agony and I hope fervently for the ecstasy part.

Today, I will be exploring what to do about all three times but mostly I will focus on this last hour, i.e., what it can feel like and 8 specific activities you can mix and match to navigate through that difficult time. These are our most successful techniques to move both ourselves as co-facilitators AND the group triumphantly up and out to the other side – where, as Theory U authors say, we reach a new future. I will invite you to think of yourself as a great explorer – willing to descend to the valley floor even when you are not sure quite how to make the difficult ascent to other side of the mountain.

You may now be wondering, “Can’t I just avoid going into the abyss?” or, “Why would I even want to do that?” We would say if you are the meeting facilitator, and the topic is complex or involves multi-stakeholder groups and issues, then it is your job to do that! You are doing your team or the newly gathered group a great disservice when you are neither prepared nor courageous enough to take them on this journey.

What It Looks and Feels Like

I want to share an image with you about what the journey feels and looks like to me.

You might also like to view what Scharmer and the Theory U Presencing Institute team have posted as images on their website (see resources section below).

For me, there are positive moments before you hit the bottom. These moments feel like you are making great progress people are engaged, sharing openly), and then precipitously, you sense and feel the slide to the bottom. You can see it in people’s body language. They are falling asleep, or look disgruntled, unhappy or start complaining.

This can happen in a single event or may happen over and over again over the course of several team meetings. Yikes!

The Good News

The good news is although you are down there with them, hopefully you have the experience to know there is always a way out – sometimes elegant and other times, a little jarring but you’ve been here before and can handle this. If you have not experienced this, then just trust me that many of us have gotten out to the other side. And why would Joseph Campbell, great mythologist and the theory U creators even tell us there is another side to the journey if there wasn’t one?

Three Things to Navigate It Well

There are three critical times and tasks that will make a difference in your successful navigation of the abyss journey that my co-facilitators and I have noted. I will comment very briefly on the first two but elaborate on the last one because I keep experiencing it and I struggle with it!! Do you also have this experience? I want to know about it!

1. How we prepare the group before the event including information we gather beforehand

2. How we set the context at the beginning of the event and throughout

3. What we do in the moment of the most profound doubt, pain or difficulty (i.e.,at the bottom of the valley floor or U).

1. Before the Event

If I only did a few things in the preparation phase to ensure we could later navigate up the other side of the U I would:

  • Ask someone to co-facilitate and/or to help with details of writing flipcharts, ensuring optimal visiual palacement of meeting results and general space usage during the meeting, and who is willing to think with me on how to change activities at the last minute (i.e, someone who has a good ear and eye, pays attention, and understands group process well).
  • ask the client how they would answer any of the key questions we are going to ask the group – so we get a sense of what kinds of answers will emerge and how useful those answers are.
  • If relevant to the key desired outcomes of the meeting, ask group members to pre-gather the most accurate, up-to-date and relevant data that allows them to draw useful conclusions.

2. At the Beginning

If I only did a few things at the start of the meeting to ensure we could later navigate up the other side of the U I would:

  • Take a few deep breaths and imagine a very positive meeting with engaged participants and helpful inner shifts the group needs to make to achieve new results.
  • Assure the group that they are the best ones to look at and resolve the challenge (similar to Open Space principle that “the right people are here”) and that they have already achieved success and are courageous enough to look for improvements even when for some members of the group, things seem relatively good.

3. Last Hour or Two of Most Profound Doubt, Pain or Difficulty

Specific techniques or activities we have used at the bottom of the Valley or U to ensure we could quickly navigate up the other side of the U we would:

    1. Create calm and support for yourself. Call for a break and confer with my colleague and or key members of the contracting client group. I remind myself that we can do this and that we have done it before. I take deep breaths or use the heart brain coherence technique (see Destress video link below) on my own to calm my mind.
    1. Have confidence in the group. Remind yourselves of the earlier positive moments to reinforce your image of the competency of this group and your own confidence in the group’s ability to move through this moment of pain, doubt, exhaustion, etc.
    1. Appreciate the group for the courage and patience they are showing; remind them that they are making good progress, the process might feel at times naturally “laborious” or “daunting” to some, and this is only temporary. Better moments are just on the horizon.
    1. Give them some rest time or quiet reflection time as in Theory U called “presencing”. Ways we have done this is to encourage the group to go for a walk outside; or, find a quiet spot in the room to write down their best thinking on a specific question; or, take a quick nap in the room together! Then after the break or rest, ask them to sit quietly in a circle with each other and ask: what is your best guess at this moment of what is needed now to have a break through? Or, what is the most important thing to remember about this situation? Or, if you were advising a key decision – maker (could be yourself), what is the one action you would take to catalyse the needed change?
    1. Energize the group. If the group appears exhausted from the deep thinking they have been doing (and you likely too are feeling exhausted), do an energizing activity such as brain gym or the heart brain coherence technique (see resources below for both techniques).
    1. Give them safe space to think outloud with one or two other people in the group. Ask them to share their thinking on a specific question without interruption. One person shares for 3-5 minutes; then the next person answers the question and is given the exact same amount of time and does not refer back to anything the first person says; and if a third person is in the group, repeat that process. Then ask each person to share their OWN newest thinking on the topic. What usually happens in the process of being deeply listened to, is the person speaking finds their own best thinking on the issue. If it is large group, you can ask for about 3-4 people to share key ideas they had without referring to anything anyone in their group said. This technique is called Constructivist Listening from Dr. Julien Weisglass who has been in the educational field and is known for his social justice work in the world. (See resources)
    1. Probe for insights. As a final closing activity, ask questions of everyone like: what is different for you on this topic from when you first walked in the door today? What is one commitment you are willing to make to move this topic forward? What is the key thing we achieved today? What would you like to say specifically to appreciate everyone in this group for the work they have begun on this topic? These types of questions help the group realize the depth of their work even if it is not finished. It is VERY important to take at least 15 minutes to “close up” a difficult or complex topic. Everyone should have the chance to speak even if they choose to “pass”. If it is a large group, have them share at their table groups and pick up a few answers once back in the large group. This will create a level of satisfaction and resolution. If you do not do this, many group members will leave feel unsettled and conclude that they have wasted their time.
    1. Get them to self-appreciate. Even though it is noted above as a possible question in the closing activity, do specifically ensure they appreciate themselves for the hard work done. Sometimes, we set aside a large section of wall space called appreciations. Everyone writes a word of appreciation to every group member or for the group as a whole. Give them time to read those appreciations or take them back to the office with them. Be sure to include those appreciative thoughts in the final document after the event.


Theory U Website: https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u

Previous North Star blogs on Theory U and Hero’s Journey:

The Power of Presence and the Theory U FrameworkA Hero’s Journey – A Model to Help Groups Through Big Change

Fun Facts about this famous movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Agony_and_the_Ecstasy_(film)

Link to Constuctivist Listening article: https://www.northstarfacilitators.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/constructivist_listening_article.pdf

North Star Videos on: Energizers

Quick Meeting Energizer

DeStress for Success!

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Kinsman on May 17, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your newsletter and your “calming” techniques to stay focused, & to keep you and the group on track.

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