Traversing Liminal Space
Honoring transitional states at work
This is a companion to last week's edition, an antidote of sorts. Where that edition highlighted the pace of a leader's work day, this is about the spaces that exists between two objects, thoughts or actions.
Liminality has roots in psychology and anthropology. The former focused on perceptual thresholds. Jungian psychology in particular on how this space allows creating the Self anew. In anthropology, it’s used to describe the rituals and rites of passages marking movement between stages in communities. Most notable was Belgian folklorist and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep who identified three stages in rites: separation, margin or limen, and reaggregation. This edition explores that middle stage, the boundary between two places.
We experience liminal space every day — like the haze when you're not sure if you're awake or still dreaming, or the moment before you fall asleep. There's been a focus on bigger moments like the book Transitions which I’ve recommended before. Liminal moments come in large and small flavors. Some are obvious — the end of a project before the next one begins; the space between leaving one company and starting at another; the time in-between projects; after finishing one task before starting another; the new team member coming on board next week. These moments can feel like suspended animation. These pronounced gaps are obvious, signaling change is afoot. This deviation from the path offers a chance for introspection, to begin anew.
Trajectories can also change in microscopic moments. Consider the space that seems imperceptible next to its more obvious kin — the pause between one person talking and another; the silence following an unconventional idea, awaiting a response; the moment after confessing a vulnerability, heart-thumping, waiting to know whether rejection or acceptance follows. The tiny opening where a crack can emerge into a wide opening.
Whatever the size, transitional states are potent, brimming with the possibility of transformation. This void reveals new information. These margins are as exciting as they are daunting or confusing. Given the heady emotion, it’s easy to step right through on our way to the next destination. Rather than be stuck in the discomfort of the in-between, we prefer to arrive somewhere new. But these slices in-between are opportunities where novel insights and ideas enter. These gaps help us step out of the trance of everyday life. They provide an opportunity to be conscious rather than on autopilot in the next phase.
Liminal moments are everywhere, and every day plenty more come along. It’s like taking the subway in Times Square, connections abound. A checklist isn’t needed to enter these moments. Experiencing them requires awareness of their existence and a willingness to embrace them. Even a small amount of liminal space allows insights to emerge.
These junctures disconnect us from the past. Their novel nature brings the feeling of being present, every nerve ending awake. This, of course, can be uncomfortable. When we allow the discomfort to exist rather than drink, eat or busy it away, our growth increases. We expand our skills, have divergent experiences, understand ourselves better, gain clarity and so much more.
The best organizations take a page from anthropology. Instead of going on autopilot, they use the space in-between (projects, leaders, teams) to clarify what’s next and then set the course. They use structures like post-mortems and on-boarding to transform rather than stick with the status quo. They focus on the experience of the team, not just the goals accomplished. As individuals, we can borrow from Jungian psychology by leaning into inner transformation. We do this by slowing down, paying attention to discomfort, and being open to what it might be telling us. We can ask ourselves, who do I want to be now?
When approaching liminal space ask: How do I/we want to spend this time? How do I/we honor the past and use it as a springboard for the future?
Until next time, be well.
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