On starting a dialogue with Robert Kegan

Cultivating Competence by Sterre van Middendorp

Sergej van Middendorp reviews another article from the W.B.Pearce Archive at Fitchburg University, “On Starting a Dialogue with Robert Kegan, on Reading ‘In Over our Heads: the Mental Demands of Modern Life'”
For this edition, I chose the article: “On starting a dialogue with Robert Kegan, on reading In over our heads: The mental demands of modern times”. Retrieved from http://digitalarchives.fitchburgstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15892coll12/id/1256/rec/1

The first time I saw this article, I was at Fitchburg State, visiting the CCM archive together with Ilene Wasserman, Bart Buechner, and Kazuma Matoba. We were gathered in Fitchburg to participate in the 2015 Learning Exchange ‘East’. Part of the program for that year’s event was an engagement between the CMM institute and Robert Kegan’s organization WayToGrow. We planned to try out the ideas of the Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO) (Kegan & Lahey, 2016) in the CMM institute to discover what it would mean for us to become a DDO. A sense of mystery came upon us as we discovered an unpublished paper in Barnett’s archive in which he shared his reflections on reading Robert Kegan’s work.

An overview of the paper

On reading “In Over Our Heads” (Kegan, 1995), Barnett concludes that Kegan’s developmental stages are similar to CMM’s concept “forms of communication”. This makes good sense, as both take a developmental perspective and try to identify patterns of experience that are coherent in time and that make transitions to a distinctive ‘next level’. In doing so, Kegan takes a distinctive psychological perspective on development, while Barnett takes a communication perspective on developmental stages. In his paper, Barnett names several aspects of Kegan’s thought that he found very useful: Kegan’s vocabulary for the stages and his eloquent examples; his claim that development does not end at adolescence; his suggestions that school curricula should contain both support and challenge at the level of development of those enrolled; his ability to show that differences between people are more about form than about content; and his distinctions between knowing rules and generating rules.

Barnett names two key differences between Kegan’s thought and CMM. According to Barnett, Kegan’s thought is constructivist, because it focuses on what goes on ‘inside’ a person. CMM focuses both on what goes on inside a person, and on what goes on in the relationships between that person and others. Thereby, CMM transcends constructivism to also include social construction. Kegan might say that in the experience of the moment, a person who is communicating will differentiate towards a higher state of consciousness, while trying to integrate a lower state at the same time. Repeated experiences of differentiation and integration would in time result in that person evolving to a higher stage of consciousness. Barnett might have said that this person is also engaged in storytelling and. in doing so, is acting into the relationship in which that story is being told. In acting into this relationship, there is a tension between the story told and the story lived, because we can never fully (re)tell our experience. The story told becomes part of the process of making the relationship in which the storytelling (itself a new experience) occurs. The interactional logic of this complex has a tendency to gravitate a person towards its emerging ‘form’ of communication. In saying this, Barnett expands the action logic beyond the person, and attaches greater force to the emerging relational context.

According to Barnett, there are two implications of this difference between Kegan’s thought and CMM. I quote:

  1. “even ‘more advanced’ folk can get deeply enmeshed in patterns of communication that exhibit a ‘lower’ level of complexity/development”.
  2. “If there is an inextricable relationship between stories lived and stories told, and if stories told in some way relates to Kegan’s notion of “orders of consciousness” then one way of developing new/better/more sophisticated orders of consciousness is to “invite” or “seduce” people into participation (stories lived) in patterns of communication that exhibit/require/develop these “new” orders of consciousness.”

In the paper, Barnett shares his vision on how such inviting or seducing others to practice more advanced forms of communication might work. He takes a second order cybernetic perspective and says that we are ourselves affected by taking part in a situation. By this, I think he means that the one inviting or seducing the other is also affected in their ongoing development by being part of the situation. Also, building on Bateson, he says that the media of communication (i.e. the forms of communication provided that the conversation partners are invited into) are extensions of our senses. And, as a result of that, the social world thus created is part of mind. An exemplary social system of client, therapist, and a possible reflecting team engaged in circular questioning can thus be seen as an “extra somatic mind” to help, in this case, a client function at, or evolve to a higher order of consciousness.

Reflections on the piece

In my own experience, Barnett’s first implication above is true. As someone who practices CMM to consciously try to make things ‘better’, I actively participate in unwanted patterns more often than is good for my intent. The irony is that I even seem capable to make this happen with those I love most more often than with perfect strangers.

I believe that what Barnett says in the second implication is also true. To me, the inextricable relationship between stories told and stories lived is that both shape the space of possibility for the emergence of ‘better’ together.

A metaphor that I often use to reflect on CMM is that of improvisation. One pattern that I have developed in my research and practice that resonates with Kegan’s and Barnett’s thinking here is ‘Cultivating Competence’ (Van Middendorp, 2015). I will try to use it to reflect on the thinking above.

The image introducing this review is our daughter Sterre’s artistic interpretation of the pattern ‘Cultivating Competence’. In cultivating competence, there are always (at least) two skills intertwined in every moment: the instrumental skill applied, and the skill of focusing. Let’s assume that one hand stands for ‘stories told’ (instrumental skill), and the other stands for ‘stories lived’ (skill of focusing). If I would be very skilled at applying CMM heuristics in an unfolding conversation, and I wanted to make the most of that conversation, I would need to combine the skill at CMM with skill in focusing. If I can focus on what unfolds in the moment, I will leverage my CMM skills to make more of that moment. Higher skill on each hand can be equated with being further ‘along’ on that hand’s extent. The space that results when we connect the points of skill on each hand with a straight line is the ‘field of competence’ I can cover at that point in time.

The point of focus in the moment, being a state of consciousness, is more volatile than my skill at CMM, which develops over time to a certain stage. And even though it can be argued that skill at focus is also an instrumental skill that can develop to a higher stage, our state of consciousness is more prone to moment-by-moment change than an instrumental skills built up over time. Therefore, if I am not well aware of what unfolds in the moment due to an altered stage of consciousness, my field of competence is narrowed by my reduced ability to focus. So far, the pattern fits with both Kegan’s and CMM’s thought.

But CMM goes further by adding relationship to the complex. In the pattern, we can envision the instrumental and focal competence of others engaged with us in communication as lines drawn between their highest points on both hands. The overlap in fields of competence in a relationship is always smaller than that of each individual person involved. And the fields outside that shared space can function as areas of development which, as Barnett mentions, people can be invited or seduced into to develop to a higher level. However, the pattern adds the idea that this can only happen if the inviter, or seducer is aware of the shared relational field of competence, and tries to start from that shared area. Also, it seems to make most sense for both partners in this relationship to navigate the other’s unique space together. In jazz, this back and forth exploration outside the shared field of competence is what creates virtuoso performance, with the groove of the shared field to hold it together as a whole. Applied to CMM, shared storytelling, in relationship, can benefit from navigating the tensions between stories lived and stories told when conversation partners start in a space of shared competence where both have a chance to grow out-of. Too much tension on either side risks losing the other, and therefore the change to grow together in that time.

Afterlife of my previous piece

In response to the questions that I asked near the end of my previous post (Van Middendorp, 2017), Vernon Cronen was kind enough to share his story of when and why Barnett was writing the piece on models and metaphors. I copy his response verbatim, and I looked up the publications he mentioned, so that those of you who want to explore further can:

“I can help a little on the dating of Barnett’s essay concerning metaphor. The use of the phrase “Implicative force” is the key. I used it when I introduced the idea of Strange Loops. The conference paper was, I think, presented at Otho Psychiatric Association in 1981, and it was published in Family Process, 1982 (Cronen, Johnson & Lannamann). I abandoned that vocabulary soon after because the terms “reflexive needs” and “Reflexive effects” provide a useful distinction that is obscured “implicative force.” I probably showed the paper to Barnett around that time, so his use of the terms “implicative force” date his paper around 1982.

Your focus on metaphor is an important one that has not received enough attention. Suggestion of a metaphor in the course of Circular Questions is, of course, a way to reframe, but not the only way to reframe. There is an example of that in Cronen & Lang (1994/ 2011) In the case used to illustrate our position on language, Peter Lang introduced the metaphor of “hero”. The client considered that metaphor and later invented a different one for himself.  Metaphors are useful when they are coherent within a systemic story line we are using as our hypothesis. Lang and McAdam treat this extensively in their essay on systemic descriptions (Family Process, 1995/2011). (Cronen, 2017)”

References—for the review

Barrett, F. J. (1998). Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organization: Implications for organizational learning. Organization Science, 9(5), 605–622.

Barrett, F. J. (2012). Yes to the Mess: Surprising leadership lessons from jazz (Kindle version). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kegan, R. (1995). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L.L., (2016). An everyone culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization (Kindle). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Pearce, W.B., (n.d.) “On starting a dialogue with Robert Kegan, on reading in over our heads: The mental demands of modern times. Retrieved from http://digitalarchives.fitchburgstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15892coll12/id/1256/rec/1

O’Fallon, T. (2007). Leadership and the interpenetration of structure and state stages: A subjective exposé. Integral Leadership Review. Retrieved from http://integralleadershipreview.com/5242-feature-article-leadership-and-the-interpenetration-of-structure-and-state-stages-a-subjective-expose

Van Middendorp, S. (2015). Research reflexivity is jazz improvisation. Santa Barbara, CA. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283853430_Research_reflexivity_is_jazz_improvisation

References—for Vern’s answer

Cronen, V.E., Johnson, K.M, Lannamann, J.W., (1982). Paradoxes, double binds, and reflexive loops: an alternative theoretical perspective. Family Process, 21(1), 92-112

Cronen, V. E., & Lang, P. (1994). Language and action: Wittgenstein and Dewey in the practice of therapy and consultation. Human Systems, 5, 5-43

Lang, P., & McAdam, E. (1995). Stories, giving accounts and systemic descriptions. Human Systems, 6, 71-103.

Van Middendorp, S. (2017). New Models and Metaphors for Communication. Retrieved from https://cmminstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/New-Models-and-Metaphors-for-Communication.pdf

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