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26 April 2016

The core paradox of developmental theory--and 3 ways to use it well

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

The anchor point of my trip to Harvard this year—as it has been every April for the last 14 years—is a guest lecture I give in Bob Kegan’s class. My lecture comes in the second half of the class, when people are really trying to connect adult development ideas with their future worklives. The students come from all over Harvard—the Ed school, the Business school, the Kennedy school and more. These 150 or so smart people from around the world come together to deepen their understanding of adult development and what it might mean in their futures.

My talk is on using adult developmental ideas in a coaching practice—whether you’re a professional coach, or a leader coaching on the side or a teacher or whatever. We explore the ideas I’ve found most helpful in my own practice, and we play with new ways of making sense of ourselves and other people.

I think the first thing that matters to me as a developmental coach is the core paradox of having adult development deep in your understanding—we think it might make us go faster as we quickly categorise people into their adult development stages. But actually adult development makes us slower and more curious as we become deeply interested in the way others make sense of the world (and in the way we do too). There might be no other idea or theory that has made me more curious than adult development theory, and the more I learn, the more curious I get. Curiosity slows us down, but it also opens us up to make us listen more deeply.

Once we’re slow, there are particular moves we can make as we try to have developmental conversations. Here are the three I find perhaps most easily practiced.

The first is a pair of questions I ask myself and my clients continually: What do I believe, and how can I be wrong? What do I believe is a question that forces us to make our ideas and conclusions objects of our reflection rather than simply acting as though those conclusions are true (we continually make conclusions, but we don’t always notice that we have made them). How can I be wrong then takes us a step farther, not just looking to understand our own conclusions, but to test them. These two questions, taken together, are both incredibly simple and amazingly tough—and they’re transformative when used over time.

The second move is about searching for the equals. Each of us has a series of things that arrive in our minds as fused, or the same (or fused as opposites). For example, I had a CEO client once who wanted me to help her prepare for a meeting with her board. When we talked about what “success” looked like, we discovered that she was interested in convincing one (recalcitrant) member of the board that her solution was the best. When I pointed out this equals (success = convincing him), it seemed to her self evident—like what other options would be successful? We played around at the equation so she could decide whether to open it up (success= learning about his difficulties with her plan; success= coming up with a new plan everyone might like, etc.). Looking at the equals simply allows us to imagine more possibilities as we play with the equations of our lives. (I write more about this in Changing on the Job)

The third move I talk about in Bob’s class is what I call “Questions Thrice.” This is where we ask others (or ourselves) the same question three times to really push to the edges of our understanding and sensemaking. If we ask a question like “What is most at risk for you here?” we tend to get a kind of plot-based answer the first time we ask, perhaps a more emotional based answer the second time, and a more meaning-based or identity based answer the third time.

In the case above, I began to probe to figure out why convincing the board member was the best option. “What is at risk for you if you don’t convince him?” I asked.

“It will be impossible to get to the next step in the strategic plan,” she answered

“And what is at risk for you if you don’t get to the next step in the strategic plan?”

“I’ll feel like an incompetent and impotent leader.”

“And, this might be a weird question, but I can imagine all kinds of bad things about feeling like an incompetent and impotent leader. What would be the worst part of that for you?”

“Hmmm. The worst part of being incompetent and impotent? I guess it’s that everyone would see that I’m an imposter, that I don’t deserve to be CEO in the first place and that I’m really not as good as I pretend to be and they’ll lose their faith in me and I won’t be able to think of myself as a leader anymore.”

Now we’re in the territory of her self concept, her self-esteem, and her sense of the future. We’re getting closer to understanding something about her form of mind: notice the way she relies on the opinions of others to build her sense of herself? Asking the same edge-probing question three times (or more) can get us to new territory, the growth edge of our client’s understanding.

If we use adult development theory to slow down, we have the chance to try out new techniques that open up new vistas of possibility for our clients—and when we use these same techniques on ourselves, we can probe our own edges and discover new capabilities growing in ourselves.

ps The picture today is of a view of the Tongariro Crossing–one of the most beautiful one-day hikes in the world. I include it for no better reason than that I wrote this blog in front of a fire, still sore from the Crossing…

One thought on “The core paradox of developmental theory–and 3 ways to use it well”

  1. C aron Egle says:

    Thank you for sharing this – it was so timely to read it and reflect on how I can further expand my own questioning of my clients. Much appreciated.

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