Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Transcending Personality

In Masterful Coaching Robert Hargrove distinguishes between incremental learning (embodying new skills and capabilities), reframing (reshaping patterns of thinking), and transformational learning (shifting frame of reference):

While change at the incremental and reframing levels is quite common among my clients, I've found transformational change to be more of a challenge. Among the many reasons,
  • it's difficult to see implicit patterns that underlie our human systems,
  • seeing these patterns "unmasks" us, shows how what we've been doing isn't working, and
  • we resist facing up to anything at odds with our self-image.
The Enneagram is a powerful tool to help us see and transcend those personality patterns. The following three levels of learning illustrate each stage of potential change (new skills, shift in attitudes/behavior, shift in point of view) as exemplified by a client with Enneagram style Six:
  1. Incremental (Single-Loop) Learning refers to learning new skills and capabilities through incremental improvement, doing something better without examining or challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. Let's say "Joe" is concerned because his boss sees him as negative, and he agrees to practice a creative problem solving technique. Instead of saying, "That won't work because it will take too long," Joe learns to incorporate his concerns into a solution statement ("I think that could solve our problem. Let's talk about how we can shorten the production time.") His boss compliments him on being more positive and Joe's happy to no longer be criticized. He may still tend to focus on the negative side of things, but he knows how to mask that behavior and keep himself off the hook in his job.
  2. Reframing (Double-Loop Learning) occurs by fundamentally reshaping the underlying patterns of our thinking and behavior so we’re capable of doing different things. This level of learning often enfolds single-loop or incremental learning, but goes beyond it. This is the level of process analysis where people become observers of themselves, asking, What's going on here? What are the patterns? It's still largely an act/react cycle, but it can get the underlying psychological superstructure to start wobbling. This is where most individual and/or organizational change takes place. This is also where the Enneagram provides a powerful road map for what to observe.
Joe, for example, might become aware of his general tendency to focus on what could go wrong, to look for hidden agendas. So, in addition to learning how to approach problems with solutions, he begins to see how his pattern of thinking tends to leave out what could go right. Now he's able to step outside himself a bit and notice how he filters out the positive. He's no longer defending himself from his boss's criticism – he "gets it" that in this way, he is negative.
When he finds himself focusing only on the negative, Joe might take out a piece of paper, write down all the negative possibilities in the left-hand column and counter these with positive possibilities in the right-hand column (a single-loop skill applied in a double-loop context).
As Joe observes this pattern consistently over time, he may spontaneously notice both sides of the equation and show this change in his language and in problem-solving capabilities. If so, the experience of reshaping his thinking and behavior has automatically taken him to the transformational or triple-loop level. In this one respect he is no longer the same person he was. Joe now experiences himself and his environment differently.
  1. Transformational (Triple-Loop) Learning is a shift in our context or point of view about ourselves. Something we thought and felt (and had manifested in our behavior) has come into question. We may feel exhilarated, stunned, shocked, humiliated, disoriented, and/or depressed at points during this process; the change may happen gradually or all of a sudden; but in this particular context, we will never be the same (there are other contexts by which we operate and which are still open areas for exploring assumptions, etc.).
Joe, for example, may have felt embarrassed to own up to his negative focus because he's always seen himself as optimistic. When he continues to observe this habitual pattern as it occurs, he'll find he begins to notice it without judgment, and eventually will see things differently, as indicated above. Or, he might worry about it for days, putting himself in a tailspin because his self-image is suffering. If Joe stays stuck in this place, he won't make the shift from reframing (double-loop) to transformational (triple-loop) learning. He might conceivably even deny the validity of the feedback he's been given and shift back to the level of single-loop learning, still able to use the new techniques he's learned, but accusing his boss of being unfair, or defending himself from the possibility that he isn't who he thought he was.
Some clients have the tenacity and guts to hang in and incorporate these unfamiliar and often unwanted aspects of themselves. For those who might otherwise be stuck, it helps to reassure them that what they're feeling is natural because they're letting go, in part, of an idealized self-image that has helped them cope since childhood. This difficult part of the passage can be reframed in a positive light. You might say, for example, "This is great. This means you've really shaken up a part of yourself that served you well in the past, but has been keeping you from using your full potential. Your whole view of yourself is changing, and this is exactly where you should be. You’ll find your perception of the world and feelings about yourself shifting in a very positive way."

I always hold it as my goal to encourage transformational learning. Rather than marketing "the Enneagram," I consider it a tool to aid in the process, emphasizing its practicality, describing my own experience, and sharing anonymous examples of how others have benefited. 

Clients are eager to learn more about themselves and what makes other people tick, in the hope of reducing frustration and making their lives more fulfilling. So it's fairly easy to achieve double-loop learning. 

Transformational learning may take a while. For one example, read "Take Time to Celebrate," where I applaud a client of more than six years, recognizing the time and effort involved in truly freeing herself, how she can breathe a little deeper each time she expands the confines of her personality's box. For other examples, read the eighteen stories in Somebody? Nobody? that show how observing and releasing habitual patterns is a complex and continuing journey.

(More about the three levels of learning in Chapter Two of Out of the Box Coaching with the Enneagram


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