Rogers (2016 p 7) at the start of her text Coaching Skills offers a definition of coaching as “the art of facilitating another person’s learning, development and performance, raising self-awareness and identifying choices” yet behind the statement lies a complex tapestry of learning theories for a coach to draw on.
In its 2016 report, the International Coach Federation identified that of 15,000 member responses, 86% of coaching clients world-wide are between the age of 26 and 54 and 68% between 35-54. The report does not explain why people come to coaching in such volume but the co-incidence with a period of growing responsibility, careers won & lost, parenting & loss represent important challenges in human mid-life that may lead to individuals seeking support in such quantity.
Source: International Coach Federation annual report 2016 p18
In this essay I will focus on life-span development, in particular the work of Daniel Levinson and Transformational Learning, and that of Jack Mezirow to explore some of the dilemmas faced by clients and approaches in coaching practice.
Levinson & Life-Course Development
Daniel Levinson (Levinson et al., 1978) set out in the late 1970s to examine broadly a question “What does it mean to be an adult”. Piaget had previously examined cognitive development in childhood, similarly Erikson had studied the whole life span with a concept of eight stages and psychosocial crises, again focussing heavily on infancy and very young adulthood with just two stages to cover ages 20 to 65; “Words such as youth, maturity and middle age are ambiguous in their age linkages and meanings. The ambiguity of language stems from the lack of any cultural definition of adulthood and how people’s lives evolve within it. (Levinson, 1986, p3).
Levinson focussed on early and middle adulthood, studying patterns in human life and how they change through external demands & challenges encapsulated as how the self is in the world and the world is in the self.
His biographical research saw subjects studied up to ten times over three months, creating a climate of intimacy at a cost of sample size. His forty subjects were white, male, American, of just three occupational groups and at a point in history – race, religion, ethnicity and diversity of cultural backgrounds were sacrificed.
Levinson perceived development periods alternating between transition & consolidation lasting approximately five years; the challenges and objectives of these periods being different. For example leaving childhood behind and forging initial attachments contrasted with “becoming one’s own man” – more independent & self-sufficient.
Levinson’s research created a notion of development tasks or missions including
- forming and living “the dream”
- mentor relationships
- an occupation
- a love, marriage, family relationship
- mutual friendships
Less well examined were notions of polarities; internal struggles and contradictions particularly within mid-life
- Young / old; confronting mortality
- Destruction / creation; the urge to bring something into being
- Attachment / separateness; conflicting missions of life partnerships & self-identity
Sugarman (2001, p115) describes the depiction of Levinson’s seasons in diagrammatic form as “unfortunate”. Whilst intended to be a depiction of the demarcation of Levinson’s concept of seasons, it has become known and critiqued as a simplified summary.
(adapted from Levinson, DJ (1978) The seasons of a man’s life)
Contrasting with Erikson, Levinson focussed on progressive incremental build of life experience and the transitions between life stages.
The diagram creates a misleading impression of fixed age boundaries. Levinson noted commonality of characteristics in his subjects, some entered transitions earlier that others and some took longer to abandon behaviours associated with a previous life stage.
Levinson’s research methodology creates further problems. His subjects were aged 35 to 45 so insight on earlier life stages was based on recollection and crucially conclusions relating to mid & later life transitions based on how subjects saw their future lives – only fifteen subjects were on the cusp of “entering middle adulthood”..
The era of research and social context is also important. Hyatt & Pletzer (2016) note for example the 1960s saw male tenure at a peak, corporate America and the concept of “the company man” and career for life. Even fatherhood, a key life transition is happening much later today than when Levinson conducted his research. Jump forward forty years and in 2017 the number of first-time fathers in their forties has more than doubled to 8.9% of US men, when Levinson has this time period described as “settling down”. (Khandwala et al 2017 p2110)
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Perhaps unsurprisingly given socio-political challenges in the US at the time were any subjects who were black. Gooden (1989, cited in Sugarman, 2001) identified that racial identity has a strong bearing, particularly on early developmental phases with family members often being mentor figures rather than work associates. This underscores the limitations of Levinson’s findings due to their limited and fixed cultural context.
Women were described through the lens of the male subjects with a role in supporting the man’s Dream until child-rearing had ended when they faced a form of disorienting dilemma. Levinson attempted to revisit the gender imbalance in 1996 but produced comparatively vague insight.
The task of forming an occupation has seen radical shifts for men & women and since Levinson’s study US women with college degrees has tripled to 39% in 2013, exceeding that for men. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014)
Whilst dated the core concept behind Levinson and others that have studied life course development remains critical. As Cox (2006 p202) notes; “the goals of the young man or woman will have a different emphasis from those of someone approaching say, the midlife transition or someone in late adulthood.
For successful coaching practice, helping clients to achieve goals is not just critical service but serves an underlying motivation on behalf of the client – illustrated in Vroom’s (1964) expectancy theory on motivation being a product of the value of the outcome to the individual and the probability that effort will result in success.
In early adulthood, the articulation of development tasks helps add some rationality and focus for the client against an otherwise swirl of confused ideas and unhappiness.
I can consider a client, aged 27 living within what Axelrod (2005) describes as ‘hero period’. Levinson’s developmental tasks help me to focus and rationalise the dilemmas this client is facing, to establish goals and work through contradictions in thinking. I can work to prepare my client for the transitions that lie ahead to reduce future crisis or confusion. For this client, discontentment & insecurity fuelled by social media stories & images of others’ work & relationship successes, a new an unhelpful version of “entering the adult world” has been created. The objective of Becoming Ones Own Man remains, but will look quite different to that of Levinson’s subjects.
The concept helps as a coach to reflect back to my own time at that age and stand in the client’s shoes – life stage development helps to remind me that some of my knowledge, experience and perspective comes as a result of age and time on earth and not readily available to this younger client. However I can work to build strategies to compensate.
Contrast with another client, also male in late 40s, mature family initially presenting with a work-place dilemma it is clear this client comes to coaching with significant experience which is both beneficial and heavy baggage. Contrasting with my “hero” client, he recognises the illusion of immortality and here I find Levinson’s component parts of individuation and polarities most helpful.
In the young / old polarity my client is surrounded by leaders younger than himself but distant from believing he can be a hero of a different kind to his organisation in middle adulthood. Elements of the destruction / creation polarity are also very true for this client particularly since younger heroes within his workplace are yet to realise the benefit of the wisdom he brings. And this client will shortly see his own children disappear from the family home, creating challenges within the attachment / separateness polarity.
Mezirow & Transformation
Contrasting with Pedagogy and its mission to understand how children learn and develop, the context of Androgogy and how adults learn has a more recent history with much analysis and writing taking place over the period of the last century.
Cox (2006) explains Androgogy as a process of constructing meaning from experience. Knowles (2015) described a number of key principles at play including self-direction, goal-orientation, bringing experience to the learning, relevancy, practicality & a desire to respond to intrinsic motivators.
Transformational Learning goes somewhat further in examining the role of beliefs and perspectives and a more dramatic than gradual step change.
Cranton (2016, p18) articulates; “We develop or construct personal meaning from our experience and validate it through interaction and communication with others. What we make of the world is a result of our perceptions of our experiences”. Meaning schemes and perspectives help us to understand why two people can hear the same speech and yet hear & feel completely different things – the filters we apply to our individual cognition. Marketers and politicians have long recognized the power of symbolism e.g. a national flag backdrop to a speech to evoke patriotism invoking belief even where the actual words / proposal is relatively unpalatable.
Transformation is not just an inevitable part of the adult learning process, rather a deliberate act that forces a questioning of meaning often derived from past experience, put elegantly by Smith & Hawkins 2018 (p235) “for adults, learning has to involve as much unlearning and re-learning as new learning”.
Mezirow built upon the work of Paulo Friere and Roger Gould (1978) examining how adults can surmount earlier acquired inhibitions. Recognition of Mezirow’s work grew from his 1978 study of women returning to college after a hiatus in their lives and how their educational experience changed their perspectives. The social context for this study is important with Illeris (2014) noting the coincidence with an era of female liberation, understanding and behavior which attracted Mezirow’s attention.
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Mezirow traces our meaning schemes from original socialization in childhood, filtering and affecting the way we take on and absorb new insight, information & experiences. Mezirow focused on Transformations as profound shifts in meaning perspective – sometimes dramatic but nevertheless fundamental and relatively permanent shifts in the way we see ourselves. This echoes back to concepts of metacognition; an ability to rise above and develop changed perspective and meaning.
Transformative learning, for Mezirow, could be gradual or epochal. Bereavement of a close relative may be an epochal incident creating the potential for transformative learning or gradual progression through a college degree as in the case of Mezirow’s original subjects.
Mezirow forms a distinction between points of view and habits of mind. Habits of mind is a generalized predisposition that may have been formed for example through ethnic background. Mezirow (2000, p18) described points of view as meaning schemes which are “sets of immediate, specific beliefs, feelings, attitudes and value judgements”. He describes ten steps in his Transformational Learning process.
Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner (2007, p134) draw attention to four stages of this process; experience, critical reflection, reflective discourse and action and that whilst generally supportive, there are limitations at specific stages. Mezirow often worked with his critics to update his thinking.
Critical analysis of Mezirow centres on its rationality and ordered approach to human behavior. It gives little scope for individuals to experience multiple disorienting dilemmas or indeed to encounter a second whilst proceeding through the ten steps. Neither does it account for individuals going backwards at any stage in this process.
One key critique of Mezirow, as similarly seen with Levinson is the social context. Clark & Wilson (1991, p75) note whilst Mezirow’s original context was based within an era of female emancipation the overall theories “were studied as if they stood apart from their historical and socio-cultural context, thereby limiting our understanding of the full meaning of those experiences”.
Taylor, cited in Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner (2007 p149) also emphasizes an underplayed examination of the role of social-cultural factors and individuals biographical history in explaining why a disorienting dilemma might lead to perspective transformation in one person and not another. Mezirow has also drawn criticism for emphasizing autonomy – seen as overly white, male & middle class value.
Mezirow accepted this criticism; later updates to his theories recognized context and forces that limit or act against an individual’s desire / success in rebuilding a new perspective which has echoes in Kurt Lewin’s theories of driving and restraining forces. Indeed Mezirow touches rarely on the role of relationships as either supportive or obstructive and whilst discourse is a vital part, the subject’s ownership of a disorienting dilemma remains a somewhat lonely and isolated endeavour.
Another critical element identified by Hord (1992) is the role of dominant power and that if a belief system is adopted through top down power coercion, an attempt to create transformational perspective shift would likely be aborted. Working with charities focused on domestic abuse, I have seen that progress is often lost should a victim returns to a domestic situation with their abuser and the imbalance of power, physical & economic coercive force.
In 1991 Mezirow expanded the notion of distorted or underdeveloped meaning perspectives creating three types of meaning:
- Epistemic – knowledge and its use
- Socio-linguistic – language and use in a social setting
- Psychological – how people view themselves
Rational discourse is emphasized despite the disorienting dilemma being accepted as something that can be experienced non-verbally and little allowance is made for individuals who lack intellect or capacity for rational discourse.
Mezirow, since publishing his original work, has updated his theories several times and engaged with his critics to create new shared meanings. The work of others to study how transformative learning occurs within different cultural contexts, in developing countries is helpfully creative a consensus that the field of transformative learning is a vital part of understanding adult learning & development.
Meirow’s work offers much in the way of stimulus and formation for coaching practice. I will divide my reflections here into two parts – that which assists the coaching practiced towards the client and that which assists the coach themselves.
The theory offers a structure for understanding a process of human acceptance, learning, understanding and perspective reformation resulting from a disorienting dilemma. Distinguishing between dramatic or progressive realization is helpful since the latter offers potential for preventative coaching versus “rescue & restore”.
Reflective discourse is valued by Mezirow. In my professional workplace, where GROW is a favoured model, I see the failure to connect with those experiencing a disorienting dilemma;
as Askew (2011, p27) puts this “it ignores the complexity of human behavior, thinking and feeling”. I agree with Askew’s puzzlement at how little value organisations place on reflective practice in a commercial world. By contrast in my coaching I can identify breakthroughs by being learning facilitator for my client and am struck by the insights coachees bring between sessions rather than within. It helps me fight the novice coach urge to provide up a solution or clever tool.
Mezirow says that educators must assume responsibility for setting objectives that explicitly include autonomous thinking and to create experiences designed to foster critical reflectivity. The same must I feel be true for the coach. Smith & Hawkins (2018, p243) describes a responsibility on the coach to listen intensely, respond with “fearless compassion” and create a shift in the room.
They describe transformational shifts as potentially generating physical appearance changes, new behaviours within coachees and tonal changes – the “Duhh” moment when someone hits their head with sudden realization that they can see a new path or have dispensed with a notion that’s been holding them back for so long.
As a coach this responsibility feels somewhat daunting however it cannot be forced upon the client – this is the essence of creating the climate for reflective discourse. I do though note that whilst the client themselves may be undertaking a perspective transformation, coaches are human too and come with their own meaning perspectives.
Coaching individuals through this method requires skill and discipline to be listening intensely both to the client and to oneself for cues that my own meaning perspective is not clouding or affecting effectiveness. For example expression of feelings, strong emotions on behalf of the client may require the coach to use considerable mental discipline not to apply their own assumptions and filters to what is actually happening. As I consider this point, it makes me more convinced by the value of coaching supervision, else the responsibility on the coach to achieve this alone is too great and the client under-served.
We saw at the beginning of this essay that people come to coaching predominantly in the mid adult life and the challenges within that have felt worthy to explore. Whilst life-span & transformation theories differ there is a certain logic that as we age we witness new challenges that are unique to our past experience & with that the likelihood of at least one disorienting dilemma.
Whilst time has not necessarily been kind to the headlines of Levinson’s work, the principle concept of life-span challenges remains true, even if the boundaries are more flexible. Levinson’s work feels for me a theory of layers than deserve to be peeled back, recognised and re-contextualised for today, holding a certain richness & depth to still explore in the service of clients.
Mezirow brings a richness to Transformative Learning – meaning perspectives, habits of mind, a logical set of phases for transformation and a value in rational discourse to progress and cement new thinking. Naturally the longer we remain on this earth the more likely each of us are to experience out own disorienting dilemma. Coaching through this is valuable, vital yet challenging for client and coach alike.
As I recall the Smith & Hawkins phrase from earlier, “learning has to involve as much unlearning and relearning as new learning” I appreciate this may apply not solely to the client but the coach as well.
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