Social Presencing (SP) is a sensing and embodiment practice whereby members of a group embody (i.e. give a concrete form to; represent or exemplify within the physical human body) something they are trying to create, change or innovate. A group does this by allowing shapes or gestures to arise in their bodies that represent or model a system or challenge they are currently in (Scharmer, Kaeufer, 2013).
“SP is a method that blends mindfulness, social science theater, and constellation work. The focus of SP is on making visible the deep structures of the social field – and how they can evolve.” ~ Otto Scharmer (Scharmer, 2018, p. 92)
The formal, full name of the practice is Social Presencing Theater, as established by its co-creators, Otto Scharmer and Arawana Hayashi, at the Presencing Institute, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each of the three terms in the name are crucial to the practice and are delineated as follows: Social means that the practice is done as a group activity. Participants allow movement to arise in the body, together, to form social sculptures.
Presencing is a hybrid of presence, the state of being in the present moment, and sensing, feeling the future possibility (Scharmer, Kaeufer, 2013). Theater in this context means making something of importance in a system visible or seen, where it was not seen before. It does not in any way refer to acting, performance nor improvisation because practitioners allow the body’s wisdom to form the shape rather than the mind telling the body what to do. For the sake of brevity, and to avoid confusion with acting, the practice in this article is shortened to Social Presencing (SP).
SP may also be referred to as a body-based, experiential learning toolkit, currently consisting of eight exercises, which contributes to organizational learning. “It is a method for helping organizations and larger social systems get in touch with the knowledge they already have about the deep interpersonal structures that inhibit real changes from happening,” stated Otto Scharmer in a recent interview in Strategy & Business magazine (Kleiner 2017). SP is also a type of social technology which is part of Theory U, “a framework for learning, leading, innovating and profound systemic renewal”. (Scharmer, Kaeufer, 2013, p.18)
The building blocks of SP include embodiment (defined above), an awareness of what are called the “three bodies,” and mindfulness. The three bodies are the Earth body (the planet we stand on), our own physical body, and the social body (the group, team, organization, system). The social body is also referred to as the social field. Scharmer most recently wrote, “I define social field as the quality of relationships that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing, and organizing, which in turn produce practical results.” (Scharmer, 2018, p. 14) Further, an awareness of the body as a 360-degree sensor combined with an awareness of the surrounding space is key.
Mindfulness, “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p. xxxv), was made famous by Jon Kabat-Zinn for stress and pain management. Mindfulness is evolving in the organizational realm as well. As detailed in David Gelles’ 2015 book, Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out, mindfulness is also used as a tool in companies for improved focus, compassion, social responsibility and leadership.
Mindfulness practice involves getting out of the head and into the body by anchoring attention in the breath or sensations in the physical body. This may also be referred to as mindfulness of body. It is an individual practice though people often practice together. In contrast, SP is a collective practice. Teams practice inquiry into the wisdom of the social body (i.e. the group, team, organization or system). As Otto and Arawana describe in some of their instructional videos in the u.lab (Hayashi, Presencing Institute, 2018), it “is a tool to notice, recognize, feel, see the true potential goodness in the situation or challenge in a team, organization, or system. SP functions on a deeper level of awareness. It does for the collective what mindfulness does for an individual.” (Hayashi, 2017)
In the next article in this series, reasons why organizations apply the practice of SP will be explored.