The “Three Levels of Reality” sounds like a great title for a Star Trek episode. However, it is a model that can improve our ability to communicate effectively, handle conflict in a positive way, and motivate others. I learned the concept during my Organization and Relationship System Coaching (ORSC) certification program, and I discuss it in leadership seminars all the time. The three levels are Essence, Dreaming, and Consensus Reality.
Essence level describes feeling and experience before we put it into words. Once we start to describe a feeling or experience, it becomes less accurate because the description depends on words that cannot adequately capture an experience, feeling, or potential.
Once we have named a feeling, experience, or idea, we are in Dream level. There we create different possible outcomes and imagine things that we can then make real.
Consensus Reality is where dreams go when we make them a reality. Consensus Reality is what we all agree is here – chairs, offices, procedures, companies, etc.
Successful groups navigate through the different levels together. A group that stays in Dreaming level can become frustrated because it never DOES anything. On the other hand, if a group jumps straight to Consensus Reality level, they miss a lot of possibilities that happen in brainstorming and exploring in Dream level. Conflict happens when one person is talking about ideas in Dream level and another is talking tangible facts in Consensus Reality. I see this type of conflict often in my coaching.
Some of us are dreamers who like to discuss our ideas out loud. Others are logical people who like to talk about facts; we don’t say something unless we intend to follow through on it. Logical people judge ideas by how reasonable they are. When dreamers and logical people talk about things, conflict and frustration can often arise because they are talking on two different levels of reality.
For example, let’s say a married couple is out for a walk. The husband is a dreamer who likes to talk about ideas and what might be possible. He begins to talk about all of the wonderful things that they could do to remodel and transform their kitchen. Dreamers like to talk about ideas. They usually don’t intend to act on them right away. They get joy from talking about possibilities.
The wife is a logical person and a realist. She knows that they cannot afford to redo the kitchen right now. Besides, it would also create a huge mess, and they have people coming to their home for the holidays. She immediately begins to point out all of these facts. The husband is hurt and angry that she is squashing his ideas and fun. The wife is upset that the husband would consider turning her life upside down right now.
When I work with teams and couples with these two types of people, I explain that they are talking on two different levels of reality. Dreamers like to dream. Unless a dreamer says something three times, he or she probably doesn’t intend to follow through right now.
If the logical person can join in the dreaming, the conversation can be quite fun. I find it helps to have an opening conversation about the Three Levels of Reality. We talk about the levels and how we behave when we are in each level. The logical person is free to join in the dreaming fun once he or she is confident that the conversation isn’t about concrete plans.
If the logical person isn’t sure, he or she can check in and ask, “Are we dreaming?” If the dreamer says yes, then off they go! This one revelation completely transformed the relationship of one couple that I worked with for the better.
Talking about the levels of reality with a person or group is just creating clear communication. Many conflicts are not true disagreements; they are misunderstandings. We don’t ask enough questions and keep an open mind during a conversation. We make assumptions based on our own beliefs, experiences, and personality types.
Once again, I am going to harken back to the Conversation Outline and the Listen and Share step. We can avoid a lot of conflict just by being curious and open-minded. Most people have a logical reason for what they think and believe. We can resolve conflict when we have all of the information that we need. We cannot resolve conflict effectively if we are working from assumptions. We ask questions to determine in which level of reality each person is operating.
After the Listen and Share step is Develop Solutions. It’s the brainstorming step. I think of it as a funnel. In the beginning, there is a lot of dreaming and talking about possibilities. That sort of discussion fosters creativity. Then we begin to talk about those ideas in terms of what is reasonable and feasible. Remember, assuming that our standard for “reasonable” is the same as everyone else’s is a dangerous thing. At every step in a conversation, it’s important to be curious and ask questions. The dreamers and logical people find their common ground during the process of developing solutions.
For a bit of practice, define the level of reality in which you are operating throughout the day. Then, figure out what level other people are in. Conversations across levels usually end in conflict. Skillfully recognizing and steering a group (and yourself) through the different levels improves motivation, creativity, and productivity because it fosters clear communication – which is the foundation of effective conflict.
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