Key ideas distinguished by Jim in his books, articles and videos


An agreement to be counted on for particular outcomes arrived at through social agreement / organization design. Accountability is an opportunity and a personal commitment to take care of some area on behalf of others, and is based on a division of labor.


The past and the future only exist in conversation. To have extraordinary, unpredictable outcomes, one must first have a vision that is outside “the box” and then take actions to realize that vision. Our actions are a function of our vision—the possible future we create in language. The future we envision happens in the conversations we have each and every day. Our actions today give us our outcomes tomorrow.

Already Listening

Human beings are always already listening in every moment and in every situation for whatever is relevant and important to their concerns and commitments. We filter what is happening or bring our models of how the world is to a situation. This is a shared or learned background interpretation which can be changed. Its primary characteristic, however, is that it is transparent. It occurs as our unexamined assessments, assumptions and explanations of the “way things and people are”.


A statement that may be “true” or “false” with a commitment that what is asserted can be witnessed and measured by a third-party observer.


A point of view that is neither true nor false with a commitment to provide grounding or rationale if requested to do so.

At Stakeness

A way of Being or mood in which someone has “something at stake” in the outcome of a particular conversation or enterprise. A primary factor in how we relate to risk.


Our essential way of Being in the world. Living in the presence of and expressing the essence of our “true” nature. In the Heideggerian sense, living in a profound acceptance of who we are “thrown” to be.


Distinguishes the domains of conscious awareness from the transparency within which all human beings exist. Reveals the permanent human condition of cognitive blindness.


The possibility of human consciousness, choice and the power to bring forth a world in which it is possible to be. Context.


A problem is generally viewed as existing independent of an observer, like the facts of the circumstances. A breakdown, on the other hand, is a declaration that either something is blocking the fulfillment of a commitment or that something is missing without which a commitment cannot be fulfilled. Breakdowns are the stepping stones to breakthroughs.

Breaking Out of “The Box”

A way of distinguishing the paradigmatic paradox through which the egoic mind and cultures persist. How can we escape a construct that is closed to any possibility outside itself or external to itself? Leaders distinguish this from “creating” a new interpretation that includes the box, but is not constrained by it.


Any unpredictable outcome.

Circumstantial Drift

The future will happen. The circumstantial drift (the predictable, probable future) is the future that will happen if we do more, better and different variations of the same thing over and over again. The “drift” defines the boundaries of common sense and limits the choices we have available to us to what is reasonable and feasible. Breakthroughs, being unpredictable results, do not occur in the drift.


The opening that accompanies any linguistic distinction. A space in which it is possible to observe and be conscious and aware of something. Context for “occurring”.


Coaching is not about giving advice. Nor is it about building potential. It is about standing for those you coach as possibilities. The job of the coach is to create reality—not fix people. A successful coaching relationship depends on the commitment of the person being coached to accomplishing something bigger than what their past dictates is possible. Coaching is about working with individuals to create who they are committed to Being as if that is who they are already. Coaching produces results without control.

Coaching is not an intervention. It is an interaction to empower what’s right and what works, as opposed to an intervention to change or fix something. In the course of the interaction, the coach attempts to either dissolve a distinction that’s there and is not producing any juice or create a distinction that’s missing. The coach is basically introducing a possibility to a committed player who can’t see that possibility.


Commitment is an intentional action in language that brings into existence something that wasn’t there before. Without commitment, we could not coordinate actions, run enterprises or engage in normal social interactions (such as meeting someone for coffee). What people produce is a product of, and only a product of, what they’re committed to producing; even not acting is an affirmation of commitment.

Commitments simultaneously open particular possible futures and close other ones. They are neither right nor wrong. However, they do create expectations on the part of others and can impact the choices they have and how they perceive their future. Not all commitments are conscious or volitional; many are historical and live and occur in our practices and habitual behaviours.


A relationship with the world in which one is whole—without confusion, resistance or argument—and free to respond. The state of being “present”.

Conversation for Action

Conversations comprised of requests and promises that are coordinated for bringing about something specific in the future. Conversations for action ground our commitments in time. They clarify and make certain who is committed to doing what by when. And they give us opportunities to discover what we didn’t know we didn’t know. In them, we make promises (for specific actions to specific people in specific timeframes) and requests (of specific people for specific actions in specific timeframes).

Conversation for Completion/Breakdowns

Conversations that interrupt or stop the action for the purpose of, respectively, either creating a “new game” or starting another dialogue about what is missing.

Conversation for NO Possibility

Conversations that are either intentional or habitual and that have the effect of closing possibilities.

Conversation for Opportunity

Conversations that ground possibilities in the historical reality and create structures for fulfillment (that is, projects and plans for bringing the vision/possible future into reality). These conversations focus on who, what and when. They constitute ‘how’ an organization’s vision and breakthrough commitments come into existence.

Conversation for Possibility

Speculative conversations that open a possibility and shift the relationship with the future. Possibility only exists in conversation. Most accomplishments begin when someone makes a declaration: “This is possible”. While we constantly make declarations about what is or is not possible, we seldom do so responsibly. Every word we speak either expands options for action and brings forth a new future or guarantees the status quo.

Conversation for Relationship

Conversations that intentionally alter the quality of relationship in terms of possibility, moods, the future or the past. They create a foundation of workability in which people are free to express their concerns and make open requests. Participants relate to each other as a function of their commitments, instead of relating to each other based on the assessments, interpretations and feelings they have about each other. Rather than resigning themselves to patterns of defensive behavior, resentment or cynicism, they focus on building relationship and opening possibilities through their speaking and listening.


A commitment that something is the case “because I say so”. Some declarations require social agreement or authority; others do not. Assessments are a particular kind of declaration.


The fundamental and essential characteristic of anything. A template for manifesting our intentions, including how something looks, how it works, and its relationship with and impact on everything else.


A linguistic phenomenon that creates or opens a domain in which something can be observed. A uniqueness in language which allows for something to exist, but which itself does not exist in the same domain as everyday reality. A distinction is not like something else: it is not a cleaving of something that is already there. It is an abstraction which may allow for a dichotomy, but it is not a dichotomy. Declarative in nature, the distinctions we have available constitute the structure of interpretation we have of the world (our worldview).


A way of relating to others that allows you to share the best of who you are, including what you know and have experienced, in a way that brings out the best in them. A two-way relationship between people of different generations based in respect, curiosity and wisdom. A practice of listening generously and giving of yourself, no matter what your age, to others.


A relationship with circumstances. A state of Being in which we are sufficient and have what we require to fulfill our commitments. Power is measured by our ability to have a vision manifest into reality. When we are empowered, we know we are sufficient to accomplish our commitments and we have the capacity to take appropriate action. We also know that people around us experience their sufficiency to accomplish their commitments. To be empowered, we must be responsible.


The process of engaging another with a focus on obtaining their commitment to a proposal or offer. Distinct from “selling”, it is grounded in the commitments of those being enrolled.

Existential Confidence

A way of Being in the world grounded in an absolute trust that you are and will be sufficient in the face of uncertainty and unprecedented circumstances and situations. Confidence based neither on knowledge and past experience, nor in a belief that you are better, smarter or more important than others.

Generous/Generated Listening

The possibility of becoming a new observer begins when we can “generate” a new interpretation, which is only possible when our listening is opened. We can listen critically, for example, or we can listen generously as a function of our commitment in a particular situation. There are many different ways we can listen if we aware of the phenomenon and “present” in a conversation.


Hearing is a biological phenomenon. Listening, on the other hand, is the human capacity for interpreting a “world”. We can all hear the same words in a conversation, but have different interpretations of what is meant and respond differently based on what we “listened” in the conversation. Listening involves much more than just processing information and engages all our sensory capabilities, not just hearing.

Historically Determined Future

Any action generated in response to a source outside the scope of one’s personal responsibility will, in effect, be a “reaction” and become part of the cultural mechanism for perpetuating the status quo.

How We See the Future

Leaders and coaches show us that we normally look at the future as something that can be predicted based on our past experience, and that most of us will organize our actions and strategies to cope with or succeed given the future we anticipate. Leaders and coaches allow us to see that we have choices in how we interpret and relate to the world, including the future.

In the Stands

In any game, there are three distinct perspectives. On the court, the players are in action in the present moment. In the stands, the observers are talking about the action after the fact (from the perspective of the past). On the bench, the coach is observing what is not happening on the court and communicating with the players to bring about what is missing to win the game. The transformational leader, like the coach, focuses on creating reality—not on fixing people or things.


A relationship with the world in which something is missing or something persists independent of conscious choice. What is incomplete persists in the background and becomes part of the “already listening”.


Methodology of questioning with the intention of finding new questions and opening new ways for observing.

Internal Conversation

The “little voice” in your head that delivers a running commentary of interpretations about what is happening, what is not happening, and what anything means.


Our interpretation of the world occurs as the narrative we have to account for what we are observing and experiencing. This is necessary for there to be an historical reality. A central claim in my inquiries is that human beings “always” respond according to “how the world occurs” (or shows up) for them. If something appears to be a threat, they will behave however they behave when threatened. How they may respond may vary depending on their competence and experience.

Leaders observe that there is always a correlation between what we are doing and how we see our reality. This opens the possibility for changing our actions or behaviors by first changing our interpretation of the world. If genuine change is to occur, leaders must develop the capacity for creating new interpretations of everyday events that, while consistent with the past, are not limited by it.


Language is the source of action. We observe and interpret the world through language. What is happening occurs in a network of conversations, including the running commentary inside our heads that interprets what is happening and the verbalized conversations people have with each other. We can impact (that is, interact with) all that is going on with our words. Our conversations not only reveal our interpretations, but also create our future.


A responsive social phenomenon denoting the process by which human beings create or bring forth their world and their future through coordination of action in the context of a common vision.


Learning is an ongoing process demanded when we expand our commitments to create a new future. It begins when we realize there is a domain of what we don’t know we don’t know. It starts with Generous Listening and with being open to other people’s perspectives. Learning happens in the questions we ask—not in the answers we come up with—and from requesting and receiving feedback. Proof that we have learned something shows up in our actions.


Listening is the fundamental capacity of leadership. It is the background structure of interpretation that gives meaning to whatever we perceive. There are two kinds of listening: Already Listening (which is historical) and Generous or Generated Listening (which is our listening when we are committed). Once we acknowledge that we start with an Already Listening as a framework for making sense of the world—a framework present in the background that is made up of a long list of assessments about almost everyone and everything—then we can begin to generate a more Generous Listening. For not one of our assessments is either ‘true’ or ‘false’.


A reactive social phenomenon denoting processes by which human beings coordinate action in a context of control and prediction with an intention to achieve desired objectives.


Psychological terminology distinguishing individual identity, often mistaken for “self”. In an ontological context, the ego/mind occurs as our internal conversation.


Common, everyday and universal phenomena that are “triggered” background conversations which, among other things, automatically form a predisposition to how the future occurs for us. For most people, they are a context for observing and experiencing the world, in that they organize how we feel, how we explain things to ourselves, and what we do. We are always in one mood or another. Moods are transportable and can be contagious: we can be infected by another’s mood in one situation and carry it into another. Although we cannot control our moods, we can master how we relate to them.


An unsolicited promise.


An opening, a possibility for action comprised of networks of conversations.  Organizations are not objective phenomena; they are spaces for relationships, identities, and the coordination of commitments and action. Organizations constitute communities designed for a common purpose and continuity as legal entities. As American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley said, “Organizations and individuals do not denote separable phenomena, but are simply collective and distributive aspects of the same thing.”

Organizational Transformation

A relationship to organization. A way of speaking and listening that gives access to the domain of organization, such that organization is an expression of people’s commitment as distinct from being a constraint on what’s possible or actionable.

Organizational transformation is about opening the possibility for unpredictable outcomes, given whatever people are committed to. The only reason they are unpredictable is people have a boundary right now where they cannot see a possibility. Once they can see the possibility, it will not be unpredictable; it will be an expression of their commitment.


Interpretations of the world that form the boundaries of our thinking. These background phenomena are transparent and linguistic in nature. The Cartesian paradigm is the prevailing, dominant paradigm in the world today. It is a mechanistic, reactive, deterministic worldview that provides no access to possibility or leadership as a creative act. In this paradigm, human beings are objects in an objective reality; “truth” is separate from the observer; the mind is an entity, usually “in the head”, whose primary function is understanding and having the right model; and all existence is conceived as either cause or effect.


Anything we can imagine and commit to as possible that is outside our conventional view of “reality”. An opening for observing the world. A powerful place to stand from which to see what’s missing. By definition, a possibility is not real. If it could be proven, it wouldn’t be a possibility. It would be an example and, therefore, an option.

Possibilities are created, and always reveal our relationship to a future. The future is always occurring in the context of either a prediction (an extrapolation of the past) or possibility, which transcends historical limits and constraints and can be an opening for unprecedented action.

Peoples’ inherent birthright is possibility, or freedom. Not only freedom from physical, political and social constraints, but freedom from the domination of yesterday’s ideas. Being free includes intellectual freedom, freedom to act as well as anything else.


A commitment to satisfy some condition of satisfaction by a specific time in the future. When we revoke a promise, we must be responsible for the consequences of this on our relationship with the other people involved. If we let a promise slide, we are not being responsible. Done on a consistent basis, slipped promises erode our integrity and our reputation.


Coaches distinguish relationship as the foundation for all accomplishment, whether between two people, a team, an entire organization or a network of stakeholders.

Relationship Framework for Choosing

We experience life in the context of five fundamental relationships: 1) relationship with self, 2) relationship with others, 3) relationship with circumstances, 4) relationship with time, and 5) relationship with the Mystery (what’s beyond our comprehension). Mastery begins with responsibility for one’s experience in all five domains.


A commitment to receive (accept) some conditions of satisfaction by a specific time in the future.


The means by which we cause the persistence of something. The primary factor blocking creativity and blinding us to “what is”. A consequence of Self-referentiality.


Responsibility is the ability to respond. It is a way of Being, a relationship to one’s circumstances and the future. It is a context for having a choice. Responsibility is not an assessment of blame or credit and should not be confused with causality. It is a personal stand we take (“I am responsible…”). Anything we are not responsible for, we are a victim of.

People can only be as free as they are willing to be and capable of being responsible. If you’re the author of your relationship to your circumstances, it doesn’t change the circumstances but allows for choices and possibilities that are not available if you are not responsible.


A construct of consciousness in which one is implicitly blind to any interpretation inconsistent with our own point of view. For example, being in denial of any interpretation inconsistent with our own pre-existing point of view. Closed-mindedness.

Showing Up

Term used to distinguish “occurring” from perception. Perception suggests an objective world “out there” which can be perceived rightly or wrongly. The world “shows up” as a consequence of the observer.

Speech Acts

Originally distinguished in the 1940s by Austin, performative verbs constitute actions that alter how we create and alter reality in language. These are distinct from verbs that describe action.


Committing yourself in the matter. To “stand for” is to be that which you stand. Taking a stand alters the observer and, therefore, how the world occurs and, therefore, the possibilities and actions available. A stand is a source of power.

It is not possible to “stand against” (that would be resistance). Resistance and force are the negation of power.


Narrative. Our interpretation and explanation and way of describing our world and everything that happens and can happen.

History is a discourse. “Life is a likely story.”

Straight Talk

Straight talk is saying what we see. It is about relating to others based on their commitments, sharing our negative assessments as a point of view, and transcending our differences. None of our assessments (our interpretations and judgments) can be objectively verified (like a fact), and can therefore neither be ‘true’ or ‘false’: our assessments are our point of view. Straight talk increases our ability to be effective, to distinguish facts from points of view, and to realize shared objectives by forwarding our commitments and our actions.

Structure for Fulfillment

Typically a plan or project for translating vision/possibility into reality.


Truth “before the fact”. All superstitions seem to be “true” until someone creates a new possibility and different interpretation.

The Box

An epistemological interpretation for distinguishing domains of “knowing” (for example, what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know). We are unaware and unthinking about what we don’t know we don’t know, yet this is the domain that appears to have the greatest impact on our future.


A shift in how one observes the world. (When we observe the world differently, we can relate to it differently, see different possibilities, and choose different actions—all of which, in turn, can transform the world.)

A context for being responsible for our relationship with ourselves and others, with the circumstances, and with time.

A methodology by which we get “out of the box” by reinventing the “box” we are in.

A romantic notion based on creating a seemingly “impossible” reality and standing for and acting as if it were real.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is about enabling people to: shift their relationship to people, processes and circumstances; see new possibilities; discover choice; and bring into existence what is missing.

Transformational leaders validate and encourage differences, rather than try to smooth things out so they are the same. These leaders give people the tools of observation and action so they can put the past in the past, be responsible for the present, and create the future they want to create. Transformational leaders generate a reality outside the predictable by: living from “I have choice”; challenging their assumptions and beliefs about themselves and the way they are living; and realizing that the future they are choosing organizes the way they are in the present, the possibilities they see, the choices they make, and the actions they take.


We determine what is reasonable by looking at what has worked in the past. Making decisions that are reasonable (based on past results and historical data) gives us more of the same. Being reasonable does not serve breakthroughs. We can only have a breakthrough by making unreasonable commitments to possibilities that are outside “The Box”. Fulfilling an unreasonable commitment is a breakthrough relative to “business as usual” (the context for fulfilling reasonable commitments).


A relationship with the future as a possibility in present time. Vision is not an idealized picture of the future; nor is it a “big goal” or a destination we are going toward. It is a context—a place to “come from”, a stand for a possible future. People who are committed to a vision are living their vision every day.