Developmental Coaching: What’s it about?

While our development as human beings is experienced as a unity, it is useful  to temporarily and artificially segregate individual facets to clarify what seems to be happening and to allow us to gain some traction in making changes.  Each of the services I offer through this site is aimed either at directly facilitating development or at transcending blockages impeding or distorting development.  This post will try to provide some background on two particular facets of our development which can be enhanced via directed coaching.

Following Otto Laske, we can talk about the cognitive side, how we make sense of the world, and the social/emotional side, how we make/find meaning and values in the world.

With cognition, we can be said to move forward on (at least) two fronts:  Epistemic Position: how we conceive of truth and our ability to know; and Cognitive Complexity: how well we use the strengths and weaknesses of logical thinking and, simultaneously, how well we marshal trans-logical or dialectical thinking while avoiding the incoherence of illogic.

In the social emotional dimension we move forward in our ability, simultaneously, to be our own person in making decisions that match or define our values AND to be respectfully, and even lovingly, integrated in our relationships with others and work.

Both aspects combine in a growing ability to manage our emotional reactivity, to be more creatively constructive and to live a more satisfying, productive life which is both emotionally and spiritually rewarding.

It’s important to note that the discomfort and even pain that precedes a developmental transition is not necessarily a signal of emotional or psychological dysfunction.  While we all carry our share of emotional blockages and pain, development itself is frequently a discomfiting process, whether we see it in the travails of childhood and adolescence or the transitions through which, with luck and effort, we proceed as adults.  The good news is that, while these discomforts are inherent in our human situation, the growth that we attain usually reduces the suffering they cause us.

Our primary means of cognitive development is formal education while social/emotional development is mediated by school, family and friends.  As we progress through our schooling and growing within our family, our body (including our brain) and mind are maturing and, ideally, our life circumstance matches or slightly exceeds the levels of complexity our developing body and mind can handle.  This helps us become more competent in our current level of development and leads us, sometimes kicking and screaming, toward the next. If we are lucky in our teachers and environment, this dance of stretch, master and stretch again continues through our school years.

Once we finish our formal education however, we are usually presumed to be fully developed and it’s supposed that mastery of new tasks, relationships, levels of responsibility or, indeed, environments will be simply a result of learning new skills rather than the development of new levels of mental complexity.  Various researchers like Elliot Jaques, Robert Kegan, Michael Basseches and others have demonstrated that this “skilling up” theory is inadequate to explain either the demands of work at higher levels of complexity or the mental characteristics required to meet that demand.  Kegan and Basseches in particular have demonstrated that there are developmental paths that can allow us to attain levels of cognitive and social/emotional sufficient to meet these demands constructively.

Kegan, in his book “In Over Our Heads” uses as his opening example the demands of the transition from being a son/brother or daughter/sister in the family of origin to being the mother/father of a new family.  The transition usually requires the new parents to establish balances in their relationship with each other, their relationships with their own children, their relationships with their own and their partner’s work and with their own and their partner’s parents and siblings.  This is a huge leap in complexity in interpersonal relationships and, for millennia, the literature, theatre, movies/TV and theatre of all cultures have been built on the ramifications, dilemmas and conflicts inherent in it.  In this example, the husband’s strong orientation to his parents is interfering with his relationship with his wife and he is struggling to re-balance and re-orient his feelings of obligation and central value toward what is now his family.  Indeed he is struggling even to understand that the discomfort and awkwardness that he is experiencing is arising from his inability to contain these two conflicting sets of obligation simultaneously.

Coaching at this developmental level involves, at minimum, helping the client see their situation in ways which reveal rather than conceal its complexity.  This can sometimes mean introducing the idea that the conventional view of the simplicity and obviousness of our lives is a large factor in generating the conflicts in which we so often find ourselves.  This in turn often helps the client see themselves in new ways which increase their ability to see themselves as both unique and self-responsible AND as embedded in the mutuality of affective and intellectual relationship.

This process is both congruent with and complementary with the material which we teach in Cultivating Emotional Balance.

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