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  • Writer's pictureSteve Dorn

Coronavirus and Learning to Learn

By Steve Dorn

The Coronavirus has added a new layer of disruption — and bewildering context — to a world already entangled in rapid and often high-stakes change. While most of us recognize that certainty is never a given, we still would like to feel as if what we know, what we’re good at, and what we believe in, will be sufficient for creating and maintaining a viable future for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and our planet.

However, in this new world, our old ways of thinking, doing and believing will be useful only if we can adapt ourselves to new situations and contexts emerging around us right now. If we choose to accept and engage with the new realities facing us, then for the sake of learning to be effective with new challenges, we must also accept we are "beginners" again. We can, of course, choose how we’re going to play. We can deny our beginner-ness, shut down and turn away, or we can lean in to the unknown emerging reality. As Otto Scharmer (Theory U) writes, we can "freeze" in our current thinking and reaction to the situation, deny reality and blame others for our troubles, or we can let go, and turn toward our new reality and embrace it – both individually and collectively. We have the choice to commit ourselves to learning together and being open to not knowing how we can generate a shared future that serves all of us more effectively. From an ontological perspective, the coronavirus opens a new space for self-reflection and reinvention.

Personal blind spots and professional misalignment

One of our biggest challenges is recognizing that our position may actually be an area of blindness for us. We see the world as left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, haves vs. have-nots; essentially: my way vs. your way. However you cut it, we shut down our ability to work towards a common goal by excluding each other’s points of view. For businesses and their teams, it’s no different. The new reality a business faces demands that teams learn how to collaborate more effectively, more openly, and with fewer politics involved. Traditional silos and their sustaining practices will need to be replaced with communication practices that are willing to “live in the question” and explore new ideas and options, rather than jumping to an answer or getting into action for the sake of appearing busy.

As a consultant, I worked with the sales and products teams of an organization when it was going through a difficult evolution of its identity in the market, coupled with ongoing challenges in developing and selling new products. Unfortunately, the departments did not get along; each felt the other was the source of the problem. Certainly, neither listened to the other. As with many organizations steeped in authoritarian cultures, it was a sign of weakness to admit not knowing how to solve a problem, as well as an invitation to be ridiculed and ostracized.

Conversations, moods and effective collaboration

My consulting team assessed that the foundational issue was not a lack of hard work or capability in either department, but of failed conversations that led to distrust, impatience and frustration. These cultural moods, coupled with the political structure in which participants had long been opponents, created an inability to admit that past attempts to bring about needed changes were misguided and insufficient. To address this problem, we developed a business workshop in which participants from both departments were teamed with each other to compete for getting a signed contract with a client. Each team would need to design the product that satisfied the client’s rather complicated needs and present it to the client along with a viable strategy for implementing it within the client’s organization. As you might suspect, “winning” the game was beside the point; the real design was about having participants learning to learn by temporarily inhabiting each other’s world through focused discussion, with an emphasis on defining their objectives and activities to achieve them together, but also by reflecting on one’s own moods, and the unarticulated standards and assumptions that continued to drive breakdowns in working with teammates.

"We don’t see things as they are, we see them the way we are." (Anais Nin)

By articulating moods, emotions and narratives as a foundational starting point, we purposely exposed participants to being beginners in listening to each other by first listening to themselves (their perspectives towards "the others") and recognizing the need to define a new shared story in which both Products and Sales could create a collective commitment to care for the customer’s satisfaction. In ontological terms, we moved away from an objective reality of fixing something "out there" and towards addressing the participants’ Ways of Being within the cultures.

The critical importance of self-reflection and trust

We provided coaching to reflect on what was missing in their conversations with each other – and what moods they found themselves in at different times and in different situations during the workshop. Initially, distrust showed up, but by openly - and respectfully – communicating the standards and assumptions they held about their own and their teammates’ intentions, sincerity, reliability and competence, they became more trusting – as well as more forthright without being demeaning towards each other. Conversational effectiveness became a source of efficiency in traditional problem solving.

Of course, it was not all smooth sailing. Other emotions showed up such as anxiety, insecurity, and anger, that required individual coaching to help a participant manage a particularly stuck disposition. But we also saw positive moods such as ambition and confidence emerge as teams continued working together throughout the day. Most notably, this went hand-in-hand with breakthroughs in trust – and the teams’ willingness to be fully engaged, including grounding their opinions and providing context for their remarks. This allowed for more effective listening and, ultimately, stronger relationships.

Acceptance of being a beginner in learning

The foundational opening we sought was to have participants recognize the power they had in declaring themselves beginners and become open to learning, while at the same time retaining their confidence as "experts" in their respective areas. We judged that this did happen based on improved partnering following the workshop. We also concluded that participants began adopting the practice of making more effective requests and promises. Overall, the teams enjoyed a renewed sense of shared purpose, and a recognition of the need to care for each other’s perspectives and input. Moods and emotions are a complex topic and not the focus of the workshop to build deep capability there, but we were satisfied that they could play as beginners, had new awareness, and that ambition replaced resignation during the day.

The COVID-19 situation we are living in now is in many ways similar to what the participants of the workshop faced – an emerging reality in which they were unfamiliar, is disruptive to daily practices and prompts an automatic reaction of turning away, back to the comfort of what they knew. However, by choosing to engage the breakdown and work through it, asking for help as needed, accepting coaching and practicing self-reflection and partnering practices (rather than blaming and shaming), the teams were able to develop a level of collaboration that had little to do with harder work, improved processes or employing a new methodology.

The workshop provided a safe, albeit temporary, space for the participants to be beginners without risking their identities as experts in other areas. Being able to say "I don’t know" or ask for help can be a problem when the world is asking for - and measuring one’s value based on - quick fixes and having an answer to complex problems. Clearly, our Western narrative that requires we be a strong, silent outsider with all the answers doesn’t hold up when faced with new and unfamiliar situations. As ontological coaches, we can help our clients to create options and be more effective learners, starting with moods of acceptance and the ability to reach out as beginners willing to cooperate and explore the questions together.

Based in San Francisco, USA, Steve Dorn specialises in the application of the ontological approach to coaching and consulting. Steve can be contacted at:

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