Liminal Thinking, part of Creative Interchange

The majority of change initiatives fail to achieve their goals. The primary causes given in most surveys are people issues, like resistance to change, management failures, and unclear communication. But what does this really mean?

What it means is that people chose not to support the change. Leaders managed their bodies, but failed to win their hearts and minds. To become truly effective at leading and managing change, leaders must focus on winning people’s hearts and minds, so they truly support the change.

But how? It’s hard enough to change your own mind, let alone someone else’s.

Dave Gray, a leader and manager with a background in design, has refined an approach to winning hearts and minds by focusing on beliefs. If people believe the basic premises behind the change, they will tend to support it. If they don’t, they won’t. Dave is actually in the process of writing a book regarding his approach: Liminal Thinking.

Last Monday he was in Antwerp where he conducted a one-day workshop during the two day ‘No Pants Festival’. I did not attend, I just ‘followed’ the two day happening via the hashtag #NoPantsFest, thus Twitter.

In preparation I viewed Dave Gray’s remarkable (I envy his drawing talent) video:

The video starts with the ancient story of the Blind People and the Elephant, story that I’ve used numerous times during the last twenty years. You can find the story on following column on this website:

In his video Dave explains mainly the ‘pyramid of belief’ and you’ll have to wait until 9:55 before he unveils that this is in fact the concept of Chris Argyris ‘Organizational Defensive Routines’, better known as ‘the Ladder of Inference’. He borrows also the concept ‘self-ceiling-logic’ from this Professor Emeritus from Harvard Business School. The Ladder of Inference has becoming popular since it was spread by Peter M. Senge ea. in ‘The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook’[i]

I’ve presented Chris Argyris’ concept ‘The Ladder of Inference’ in both of my latest books: Creatieve wisselwerking[ii] and Cruciale dialogen[iii] and to me, the idea of ‘self-ceiling-logic’ is the same as being locked in your belief system created by your ‘demands and expectations’ (the ‘nine dots metaphor’) of your personal ‘Vicious Circle’ mindset. See for more regarding the Vicious Circle, my already mentioned books and The Chicken Conspiracy[iv] of my third father Charlie Palmgren and his business partner Stacie Hagan of SynerChange International.
Another word for ‘self-ceiling logic’ is mental model. Indeed, differences in mental models explain why two people can observe the same event and describe it differently. There colored consciousness is different so to speak.

Dave says rightly that the problem with the closed (impermeable) mental model or mindset is that when a ‘new’ idea is uttered by another person, we are looking for two things:

  1. Internal coherence (does it fit with what I already believe) and
  2. External validity (can we test it and does it work?)

Unfortunately, if the idea is really ‘new’ the odds are high that it won’t have any internal coherence AND that we will be ready to reject that new idea. In my latest book ‘Cruciale dialogen’ I’ve collected some ‘killer phrases’, phrases used to reject new ideas:

In fact the self-ceiling logic (mindset, mental model) of Chris Argyris and Dave Gray protects you from what you needs the most: ideas that will expand your world view and ultimately your belief system. This is at the heart of resistance to change. Why? Because we feel safe within our Frame Of Reference (mindset, mental model, paradigm …) and we hunger for Safety and Certainty, although we should know by now that they are illusions, which I ‘proved’ in my book Creatieve wisselwerking (2001). We protect ourselves from the Fears and the ‘Fog’ of Reality (which is by default uncertain, since the world is transforming continuously), and this despite the fact that the late W. Edwards Deming asked us to ‘Drive Out Fear’. So we protect ourselves from ‘new’ ideas, and if this happens in a team, this is called ‘groupthink’. We tend to embrace the status quo and fight change (even if this is badly needed).

Since our experiences are limited, it would be wise to accept the experiences of others. Since their experiences have created their beliefs, which are not our beliefs, we see them as the enemy.

How do we solve this problem?

One way is to step down the ‘ladder of inference’ and observe and revisit our experiences as ‘reality’ in an Awareness way. I often call Awareness ‘observing with the naked eye’ or ‘the non-colored consciousness’. When we have both stepped down of our ladder, we should meet each other ‘in the middle’:

Out Beyond the Ideas of Right and Wrong

There is a field – I will meet you there

Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century Mystic Sufi Poet

Secondly, we should appreciatively understand other people beliefs and how they came to them. We do not have to agree with them, we just have to understand their colored consciousness in an appreciatively way. Therefor we should suspend judgment and disbelieve as William Isaac explains so clearly in his book Dialog[v]. You have to understand that their reality makes sense to them.  So ask you the following question: “What do I have to see in order to understand appreciatively the other?”

Dave Gray calls this the start of Liminal Thinking; I call this the start of Creative Interchange or, in the case of its application ‘Crucial dialogues’, the start of one.

Liminal is Latin for threshold. Literally a threshold is a doorway. But a threshold is also a starting point, the initial stage of a transition from one thing to another. For example, to use one of my sayings “We are on the threshold of a new beginning, the fourth Paradigm of the Work Field.” (See in this column website my Black Swan Award winning talk of November last year: ) .

A threshold is also a limit or boundary that marks a point of transition between one state and another. The problem with this idea is that we are in continuous change and … hopefully in continuous improvement. To use the metaphor of Kurt Lewin’s ancient change model, we are continuously in fluid state, no more freezing any more. Therefor I like following expression: (CI) ²=Continuous Improvement through Creative Interchange.

Liminal thinking is, according to Dave Gray, the art of finding, creating and unlocking potential, while connecting people and ideas. Expanding our ways of understanding the world so that we can see better and communication better. Let me paraphrase this using our mental model: Liminal Thinking corresponds with the left hand side of my Crucial Dialogue Model (Communication and Appreciation), thus with two characteristics of Creative Interchange ‘Authentic Interacting’ and ‘Appreciative Understanding’. Since Crucial Dialogue is an application of Creative Interchange, I claim that Liminal Thinking is part of Creative Interchange, thus the title of this column.

In this Crucial Dialogue model the left hand side represents ‘Seeing and Thinking’, the middle ‘Feeling’ and the right hand side ‘Creating and Innovating’.


One of the principles of liminal thinking (and of Creative Interchange) is that it not only about helping people change their minds, it is also (and perhaps mostly) about examining and understanding one’s own beliefs, and having the ability and flexibility to change one’s own mind. Charlie Palmgren often says rightfully: “Creative Interchange is the Process through which the mind is changed, since the mind cannot change itself.”


Feel free to stroll through the other columns for more detail on Creative Interchange and its application: Crucial Dialogues.


[i] Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross & Bryan J. Smith. The fifth discipline fieldbook. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

[ii] Roels, Johan Creatieve wisselwerking Nieuw business paradigma als hoeksteen voor veiligheidszorg en de lerende organisatie. Leuven – Apeldoorn: Garant , 2001

[iii] Roels, Johan Cruciale dialogen. De dagelijkse beleving van het Creatief wisselwerkingsproces. Antwerpen – Apeldoorn: Garant, 2012

[iv] Hagan S. and Palmgren C. The Chicken Conspiracy. Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore: Recovery Communications Inc. 1998.

[v] Isaacs, W. Dialog and the Art of thinking together. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

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