Levels of consciousness

This is an extract from my book “Developmental Coaching”

In this chapter we look at the main transformations that can be aided by a Developmental Coaching approach. I approach it knowing my potential pool of coachees will generally be within these levels, but I know myself that people can be both above and below. I have chosen not to give a full explanation on the theory of levels of consciousness as the recommended reading will do far more to aid understanding. So won’t be attempting to explain the “highest reaches of consciousness”, I’ll leave that one to Ken Wilber et al. Instead, I will look to make this as practical and user friendly as possible for the most likely of circumstances. This is still going to take us up to dialectical thinking so, don’t fret 99.9% of people will find this useful.

I have to admit, when I began teaching these levels in larger groups, I recall some blank faces! “Levels” can be a little tricky but this approach will operate as a kind of framework to consciousness that is a handy talking point with the coachee, as well as one for you to use yourself. It should be very easy to grasp, especially when you combine it with the later chapters. I know how much people into coaching enjoy “skills based” approaches; this way I think we bridge theory with a practical approach.

Jean Baker Miller in Toward a New Psychology of Women explains that “Psychological problems are not so much caused by the unconscious as by deprivations to full consciousness. If we had paths to more valid consciousness all along through life, if we had more accurate terms in which we conceptualise what was happening, if we had more access to the emotions produced, and if we had ways of knowing our true options – we could make better programmes for action. Lacking full consciousness, we create out of what is available.” With that purpose in mind, the following explains the three main transitions a Developmental Coach can help a coachee achieve to expand their consciousness and choices. As a coach, you may never need to label them as they are below, but if you do you can ‘point’ at yourself at the same time you can begin to see when these levels are being accessed within yourself. If you decide to discuss with them this coaching approach explicitly (as I often will do), it is the ability to have the appropriate language that will also give you and your coachees a common understanding of what is going on. In the meantime the language will enable you to empathise more with where the person ‘is at’ as well as where they could be.

Robert Kegan, a compassionate writer and academic, sees that at each stage of our development we construct meaning in the world differently – we make meaning differently at each stage. He begins, “If you want to understand another person in some fundamental way you must know where the person is in his or her evolution” and he continues that the first goal in this understanding is “how the other person composes his or her private reality.” This, as you can see, is very much aligned with the process we are taking in this book. And it is the levels to this reality, or making of meaning, not just the thoughts and feelings that could be at a given level, that we next turn our attention.

I have based this section on Robert Kegan’s work but have also used psychologist Piaget’s traditional terms to describe the stages. Once again, I start with an overview of the theory, but interlace coaching as a theme throughout. The examples of ‘leaps’, developments or transformations are my own.

‘As if’ to ‘what if?

To begin, the first transformation a coach may be involved in is the transformation from ‘as if’ to ‘what if’ thinking. Briefly, the difference between concrete operational thinking (or, ‘as if’ thinking) and formal operation thinking (or, ‘what if’ thinking) can be illustrated by a test. You will remember this from school: You have three test tubes of clear liquids labelled A, B and C. You ask two people (one at the ‘as if’ stage and one at the ‘what if’ stage) to find out which two liquids, when mixed together, become cloudy. The ‘as if’ person will plough into the problem without much pre-thought or consideration, and try different combinations until they find the two test tubes that make the cloudy liquid. We can probably relate to this when we “can’t be bothered” which is exactly what happens i.e. we use this very limited type of thinking. Conversely, the ‘what if?’ person will take a different approach – they will think ‘what if?’ I mix A and B, A and C, C and A and C and B. In other words, they will prepare a hypothesis and test the hypothesis out – ‘what if?’.

Robert Kegan beautifully encapsulates ‘as if’ as, “The concrete operational [person] explores the limits of the world, but within the terms of the evolutionary truce. From a more evolved point of view we might say it is an exploration along a plane without recognition of the third dimension.” Remember the flatland story in the Introduction? This is the same reference. When transformation occurs, the former concrete operational individual will no longer act ‘as if’ in a realm of what is, they begin to consider what might be, i.e. ‘what if?’ Increasingly using ‘what if?’ thinking opens up the individual’s capacity to generate more options within a closed system by using a theory.
Let’s now look at a couple of examples. In a game of pool, the ‘what if?’ thinker will usually work out the optimum entry and exit angles for the balls bouncing off the cushion, using their mathematical understandings of reflection. On the other hand, the ‘as if’ thinker will usually just ‘give it a go,’ without utilizing a theory. Similarly in a coaching context we are not just looking at the results but also starting to build a map of the causes. This is a movement to ‘what if?’ thinking starts during our teenage years but is often not held as a stable level of consciousness. Because the ‘as if’ stage is very much ‘self’ and ‘needs’ orientated, the ‘as if?’ individual will do little or nothing to take account other peoples’ viewpoints. This can, as you would guess, cause problems. Conversely, the stable ‘what if?’ individual can hold other people’s viewpoints while not losing the knowledge and appreciation of their own needs, e.g. the ‘what if?’ thinks ‘what if? I behave or act in a certain way – how will others feel and how will I feel? This is a prerequisite to entering into high-quality interpersonal relationships.

So, the shift to ‘what if?’ thinking is more encompassing and extends beyond the preceding stage. It is only if and when the development to this stage is negotiated and stabilised that stages of later development can be supported. This then is the first shift/transformation that the coach can support the coachee through. If the coachee is operating without much thought to the consequences of their actions for self and others, the coach may ask, ‘What do you think will happen if you do this?’ By repeating, this and similar questions, the coachee will begin to draw a bigger map of the territory they are operating within. I know it sounds very simple but it also  allows for a degree of reasoning that may enable the coachee to make a profound difference in their lives. Beforehand, the map, put simply, may not have been drawn.

It is crucial that one completes this first transition because, unless there is a stable base to build on, the construction of self will be less stable as we move onwards. As coach, there is no need to point your finger at the coachee’s level of development, but the movement from concrete operational thinking to formal operational thinking is frequently not completed in all contexts by the coachee. While this stage is not the most fundamental and initial of stages (which I shall look at relating to the session on Adaptations), it is a commonly needed leap for the individual to feel more at ease within the culture. They could feel they are truly drowning if not. Really, as we will see, this shift is absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) within Western culture to live a satisfactory life. If the coachee has not yet made this transition, the coach should ‘hold’ them and explore with them the options at their level of being. As Wilber says, “every time you imagine different outcomes, every time you see a possible future different from today’s, every time you dream a dream of what might be, you are using formal operational awareness.”

‘What if?’ to ‘Full what if?’ or “Self-authoring”

The next transformation, on which Developmental Coaching focuses, is what Robert Kegan calls ‘self-authoring’ (Piaget called this full formal operational thinking), or ‘full what if?’ thinking. We can express this initial development as one of objectifying the internal world of thoughts, feelings or emotions. No longer is the individual ‘had’ by their emotions – they begin to ‘have’ them. This is the key phrase for this transformation and one that you will use with a coachee time and time again. It sums up the concept incredibly well. The resultant transformation can be highly motivating as it can free the person from much emotional instability.

At the ‘what if?’ stage it is difficult to know one’s own mind and to follow one’s own dreams independent from what is expected of you within your role. Carol Gilligan wrote that there seems to be “the yearning to be included, to be part of, close to, joined with, to be held, admitted, accompanied” and also “the yearning to be independent and autonomous, to experience one’s own distinctness, the self-choseness of one’s direction, one’s individual integrity.” If ‘what if?’ thinking is an absolute prerequisite for modern living, ‘full what if?’ thinking is emerging as a seriously desirable level of consciousness. At this “self authoring” stage the individual’s internal world is seen as an object, or in other words, the person is no longer embedded within their thoughts and feelings, but knows them to be separate – the dependence on binding relationships and the peer group of the ‘what if?’ stage has been transcended (but remains important). This is a stage of ‘psychological independence’ or autonomy, but that does not mean that the person needs to be isolated. As Kegan says, “deciding for myself” does not mean “deciding by myself.” At this stage, there is a change from taking on a role (within a job or as a parent) and then taking it to its natural end – instead the individual takes on an authorship role in what end is reached. This is the emergence of an independent thinker who can reflect upon their roles within society and see themselves as someone other than the sum of their roles. The individual has developed through and beyond the role-taking level of consciousness and now as their new self they will take on a new perspective as the organiser of the roles – a coordinator that no longer sees conflicts as outside themselves, but has brought them inside. This is the realm of self reflexive consciousness – being able to see the workings of one’s own mind and know that this is the realm that much conflict can be resolved.  This is a stage, once obtained, any individual will appreciate. Through the process, many of my own clients, as coachees, have felt freer and more “together” than ever before.

The Developmental Coach will help stabilise the movement to this stage by aiding the individual to decide what they want to achieve for themselves – how they want to live their dreams while still recognizing the importance of their relationships. At this stage relationships become very important as a way of defining the self.  As the coach, you will also encourage the coachee to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about certain issues and leave them to come to their own conclusions – or at least make them think about their conclusions before discussing then further. You will avoid telling them what to expect and the coachee may be surprised with what they find!

‘Full what if? to ‘What, what if?’ or Post-formal operational thinking or Dialectical thinking

Beyond the ‘full what if? (self-authoring) stage of thinking, but only when the coachee is ready, the Developmental Coach can assist their development even further. Obviously it will depend on where the coachee “is at”, so this could relate to either the same individual over a long period of time or to totally different coachees.

Post-formal operational thinking, or ‘what what if?’ thinking will then emerge, revealing a cognitive capacity for cross contextualisation. So, this is the key element we need to discuss in relation to this stage of consciousness. It can be a little tricky but I’ll see what I can do…

Cross contextualisation is when the individual no longer takes on different roles in life, but takes ‘the theme of their life’, their centredness, into different contexts. This is the awakening of dialectical thinking (or as Ken Wilber calls it ‘vision logic’). This is a perfectly natural emergence that is open to us all, and as Wilber says, we don’t even have to master the earlier stages – just stabilize them.

Let me explain a little more about this stage to make it more solid. Formal operational thinking i.e. ‘what if?’ thinking, is a problem solving stage, but one of the ways formal operational thinking can and will fail is when the individual has to deal with a high degree of contradiction. For instance (and using an example from Kaisa Puhakka), if a physicist is looking at physical reality, they will find evidence that physical reality is a ‘wave’ and, at the same time a ‘particle’. This contradiction cannot be resolved at the ‘what if?’ (or ‘full what if?’ – which is largely the same, just more mature). Instead, the physicist somehow goes beyond the basis, and instead looks to the theory that yields the results of either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This way these contradictions are ‘held in mind’, that is, this process is seen as a way of unifying opposites – this is dialectical thinking.

If you would like to know more on the contradiction then search Youtube for “Dr Quantum’s Double Slit Experiment”! It is a fun one.

In formal operational thinking (what if?) the identity of the object must be fixed in order to be worked with at that time (the system is closed – the variables are known- as in the mixing of the testubes). At the ‘What, what if?’ stage, however, the variables are not seen as being fixed – they are seen within a space that allows them to be as they are. This stage ‘possesses not just a new cognitive capacity (what, what if?) – it also involves a new sense of identity…, with new desires, new drives, new perceptions.’ And as Wilber points out, this is the stage of integration. It would be reasonable to expect that this is the stage that the Developmental Coach can aim his coachees towards (and this is self actualization in Maslow’s terms) but it may be up to the coachee to put the hours of study in to really “grasp it”. Dialectical thinking is, as I say, tricky to explain but I hope to have given you some initial ideas about how “it looks”.

Having kept the explanations of these transitions brief, the examples below will further help you to ‘place’ them in your coaching life and in life in general. I have chosen to show one developmental stage per example but all the stages are present within each area – in fact all stages are present within all areas of life (mind, body, culture and behaviour) and within all the lines of development that exist within all these areas. But let’s keep it straightforward and practical as in this section I intend only point the way for you to find your own points of application, otherwise I am both restricting and telling you something ‘as if’.


In the region of health, and in this example it will be largely emotional and mental health, I want to offer an explanation of the development from ‘as if’ (concrete operational thinking) to ‘what if?’ (formal operational thinking). On one occassion, a coachee was having a challenge with a partner who was not yielding to their emotional needs, or maybe even desires. This was causing them emotional turmoil and even led to a physiological manifestation of health problems such as bowel complaints and lack of sleep. They had tried to express their needs time and time again, but it was always with the same result. They simply were not heard. Effectively, all the translations had failed. As is indicative of ‘as if’ thinking, the coachee was operating from a place that was orientated around their self needs – they were failing to appreciate the point of view of their partner. The harder they tried, the more they failed and the more entrenched they had become in their own view- they were, in their words, “banging their head against a brick wall.” During the coaching session, and related to the other family member, I was able to gently talk the coachee into ‘walking a mile in the other family member’s shoes’. Initially the coachee was reluctant to see the other person’s viewpoint, but with questions such as ‘When you are talking, what do you think is happening for them?’ and ‘If you were listening to this in their position, what would you be thinking and feeling?’, the coachee was able to achieve a movement to ‘what if?’ thinking. In this case, instead of acting ‘as if’ only the coachee’s needs are important, ‘what if?’ the coachee started thinking about what is happening for those around them.

It is incredibly simple but this method effectively resulted in the coachee seeing something they hadn’t previously seen, which in turn reduced the internal tension. The coach’s role is to support this psychological development and in this case, and over time in this case, the coachee also managed to improve the relationship through increased understanding and appreciation.

Next I will give an example of movement from ‘what if?’ to ‘full what if?’ thinking i.e. self-authoring (a phrase I love). Robert Kegan is a great source of examples of differences between the ways of thinking at the different levels. For instance, he comments in “In over our heads” that many management books point to differences in employee approach. So, using this as an example, let’s look at two different approaches within a business context. One employee may, for instance, ask for specific details about goals, criteria for achievement, reward and evaluation. In contrast, another employee may both be mindful of their employer’s view, but “has his/her own contribution to make toward understanding the goals, planning for their accomplishment, and evaluating their outcome.” As Kegan points out, the second employee is operating with ‘full what if?’ thinking. This is not something that is a learned skill – it has come from the emergence of a way of being. This is when the employee is acting in a way that is synonymous to being self-employed. This is a handy principle in coaching sessions! Would a person be as they are if they were self-employed?! In the business context, when we ‘employ the self-employed’, the role of manager becomes quite different as there is a high degree of autonomy within the staff.

In a coaching context, the coach can aid the coachee to develop this self-employed way of thinking by helping them take more responsibility for the form of their employment. They are no longer pinned to a role that is given, but they instead develop within that role (and in turn that role will actually develop). This helps a shift from ‘what if’ to ‘full what if?’ Also, the individual will act in a more ‘steady’ manner, with less hijacking of rogue emotional states as a secondary consequence of the state of consciousness. This is a key area as there becomes a self that internally manages all of the other selves. The sub-personalities (as you will see) we all have come under the charge and management of a greater more encompassing ‘self’. The individual is able to see these sub-personalities instead of the individual moving from state to state without a cohesive sense of self that is over and beyond all those states.

Frequently in a coaching sense the coach will help the coachee ‘reflect on’ instead of ‘acting out’ when an emotional impulse presents itself. This will lead to the individual ‘steadying up’. It also leads to a great internal freedom from the sub-personalities (that often appear as inner voices or emotions) that can otherwise take over the show for a time before returning from whence they came. For those of you who are familiar with meditation techniques used to observe the objects of mind, then this is an excellent point to introduce them to a coachee. It is at the cusp of this stage they most appreciate how they can objectify the contents of mind instead of being “subject” to them i.e. embedded within them.

Looking next at a shift from ‘full what if?’ to ‘what what if?’ thinking, Michael Basseches superb book Dialectical Thinking gives an example in the context of relationships. This gives us another angle where you can look at application areas. The ‘what if?’ (formal operational) approach to relationships tends to see that people are quite fixed and have rigid traits, whereas the ‘what what if?’ (dialectical) way of thinking is quite different. As Basseches says, this approach could “begin with the assumption that my traits are not fixed and that the relationships I enter will shape who I am and who my partner is.” He continues that when this is the case in the relationship, both individuals will be “evaluating whether the relationship is evolving in ways which allow both of us to develop as individuals while it continues to develop as a relationship.” So, what does this mean for coaching? When assisting this transformation as a coach in the relationship context, it is your role to support the emergence of thinking that people are “created by the relationship” as much as they “create the relationship”. This can lead to higher levels of fulfilment for the coachee as they are no longer ego bound in such a rigid fashion. If they considered themselves to ‘a serious person’ they might have shied away from someone who was ‘playful’ as a partner, as they would have seen this as a conflict to their style. But at this ‘what what if?’ (dialectical) stage, the coachee may be able to explore their own ‘playfulness’ as is brought out by the interactions with the other. This, as Basseches points out, can quite dramatically change the perspective of the person we used to be (in this case, ‘I am a serious person’). Taking it further, during relational challenges, instead of the usual blame, guilt and regret type responses, the individual at this level may ask, ‘How does the relationship need to change in response to the changes it has brought about in us in order for it to continue?’ So, as we draw this section on “levels” to a close, let’s consider this principle as the view is rather different to the earlier stages. For a coachee, they will not only look at changes they make in themselves, they will also look at the changes they make to the relationship itself because of the ongoing developments within themselves. This is a dynamic interplay of the two selves within a dynamic relationship.  You see? This is when Developmental Coaching begins to suggest something that is not just about changing behaviours. This is about consciousness.