Fourth Person Knowing: A New, Yet Old, Way For Leadership Insight
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Fourth Person Knowing:
A New, Yet Old, Way For Leadership Insight

Fourth Person Knowing: A New, Yet Old, Way For Leadership Insight

By Ginny Whitelaw
Originally published on on July 1st, 2024
Image created by Ken Wiele, Pexels

My grandmother loved Bingo. I used to take her to community centers and church annexes where we’d join dozens of others in arranging numbered cards in front of us, awaiting the callout of said numbers to complete a string or some other pattern. As each marked ping pong ball was pulled from an air popper and read, those with that number could cover a square. With each ball, the energy of the room would step up until the place felt positively electric. At that moment, the experienced players could feel it coming, knowing with the next number they’d hear it: BINGO!

To be sure, what leaders face today is more complex and dangerous than a Bingo game. We’re facing new extremes and intersecting crises from weather events, to war, famine, politics, AI and collapsing ecosystems, each stepping up a sort of frenetic, disruptive energy. Meanwhile, as leaders, we’re also trying to cover the squares of what we need to reach our goals and feel what’s coming. So, it is especially timely in facing such wicked issues that we’re at a cusp of evolutionary development where we have access to a new way of knowing. It is also an old way of knowing, but recently given a new, potent articulation by Otto Scharmer and Eva Pomeroy as Fourth-person: Knowing of the Field, as published by the Journal Of Self Awareness-Based Systems Change. It’s a knowing that is both individual and collective. It is a knowing that “I” experiences subjectively but does not come from “I” rather through “I” by sensing the field. It is unifying insight that resonates with a possibility in the future-field and brings it into the present. It is the kind of knowing we need now.

Fourth-person knowing is distinct from what we’re accustomed to in first-, second- and third-person experience. First-person experience is what “I” feel subjectively. It’s generally considered an “interior” experience, though it certainly affects how we show up in the world. Second-person knowing is we what “we” experience inter-subjectively. It could be the “vibe” of our relationship, shared emotions, or all the ways we’ve mapped one another in our own brains. Third-person knowing creates the distance of objectivity: it’s something we study scientifically or what “they” do, as opposed to what we do. It gives rise to the very science we would use to study such matters as the basis for inter-subjectivity in the brain.

Fourth-person knowing, as described by Scharmer and Pomeroy is different from these three. It is both subjectively felt and collectively shared. It is a way of co-creating with life as a generative participant, not as an objective observer. From a Zen Leadership perspective, this quality of knowing more readily accords the Way, as it senses and becomes “one-with” the great pulsing and fractal patterns of life. It does not give rise to separate subjects who then exploit objects in rational self-interest, i.e., the evolutionary mindset that produced the Modern Age. As with every stage of development humans have passed through—some 5-8 stages depending on the model—it is only by evolving to the next stage that we will be able to address issues that are intractable now. And that stage is characterized by fourth-person insight.

While this fourth-person framework is new, this way of knowing is also very old. It is the way we lived and learned as primitive humans before we felt separate from nature. As David Hinton observes in China Root, once our Neolithic ancestors began settling into villages and controlling nature through domestication of plants and animals, they developed a more “detached, instrumentalist relationship to the world.” Listening and learning from Indigenous Elders today, one catches a glimpse into a time before we felt this separation and cultures that worked hard to preserve it, even through the onslaught of modernity.

So, for leaders who want to access this fourth-person knowing with their teams and organizations, it is not surprising that a best practice for doing so comes from Indigenous cultures in the form of Circle Practice. What characterizes Circle Practice is wholehearted listening. As Yael Zeligman-Merculieff reads the guidelines for the Circles she hosts, the first is always, “The circle does the talking, we do the listening.” Yes, people also speak, but only as the words ripen, offering what’s coming through them in response to a question that seeded the Circle and what has been voiced so far.

At the Institute for Zen Leadership (IZL, which I lead), we’re increasingly using Circle Practice in our programs and meetings for a range of applications from reflecting on learnings to envisioning the future we want to create. A key instruction for that practice is for the host to “set the table” by reading guidelines for the Circle. The set below is based on the Circle guidelines compiled by the late Yupi’k Elder, Rita Blumenstein, and shared by Yael Zeligman-Merculieff (used with permission*):

Changes to these guidelines may be offered once the host has finished reading them. Any suggested changes are to be discussed until consensus is reached by everyone present.

In our Circles at IZL, we also use a talking piece, held by the person speaking and passed to the person who wishes to speak next. Even across boxes on a Zoom screen, this method works well, as the talking piece changes from one person to the next, but there’s still a felt handoff.

We have found Circle Practice especially valuable for envisioning the future and feeling into what we want to create as part of that. It’s not linear or logical and doesn’t generally result in clear action steps. It’s more a starting point to strategy than an ending point and is surely not the only kind of conversation leaders would have with their teams. 

And yet, it can be magical. Seeding a Circle with the question of what the future looks like two years from now and what’s our part in that, we all listen. Deeply. It is like each of us is an antenna tuned to the frequency of a future. And because each of us is a different kind of antenna, we pick up different parts of the “song.” We give it words. Some hit, some miss, some catch resonance with the group and suddenly the energy steps up. An aliveness builds, and now more insight is pouring through a person who had been quiet. The energy builds further, and a kind of knowing the unknowable is tumbling out. We’re all feeling it. It’s not my idea or your idea, rather it’s coming through our co-created Circle: fourth-person insight. Yes, that future rings true. Yes, this is ours to do! BINGO!

*The author gratefully acknowledges Yael Zeligman-Merculieff and Ilarion “Kuuyux” Merculieff in helping with the use and wording of these guidelines.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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