Gini Nelson\’s Engaging Conflicts

February 21, 2007

Transformative Learning, Adult Development, and Adult Complexity Of Mind, Part Three —

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gini @ 4:04 am

sheep looking into cameraThis post continues the series on adult development and adult complexity of mind, a relatively new field of study and application about how human thinking capacities evolve sequentially and how these theories can be practically applied in such fields as adult learning, professional development, and leadership development, all of which are relevant for attorneys, mediators and others working in conflict management and resolution. Part One, which overviewed transformational learning, as distinguished from informational learning, and Part Two, which introduced psychological theorist Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development of mind, are found here and here.

Most adults are at Kegan’s Third Order in his five staged orders of mind. They may live most or all of their lives in it. They perhaps strive to live good lives as defined by the norms and standards of their societal institutions, such as family, government, profession. These norms and standards have been internalized — they are “subjects,” that cannot easily be questioned. Adults at the Third Order are living something greater than narrow, self-centered interests — they can consider the impact of their actions on others, and choose, e.g., personal discomfort or risk in order to do what is right for their family. They have difficulty, however, when there are conflicts between important ideologies, institutions or people — they feel torn in two and have difficulty making decisions.

However, according to Kegan, this level of adult development of mind does not give the adult what contemporary life so often demands — contemporary life often requires us to mediate between many conflicting important ideologies, institutions and key people. Therefore, according to Kegan, most adults are “in over their heads,” much of the time.

At the Fourth Order, adults have a sense of self that is independent of their family, government, profession. The norms and standards of those institutions can be examined, questioned — they have become “objects.” These adults are not torn apart by conflicting ideologies, institutions or people, because they have created their own norms and standards. They are self-guided, self-motivated, and self-evaluative. They also have empathy and consider other peoples’ needs and wishes when they make decisions.

According to Kegan, less than half of all adults are at the Fourth Order, even though this is the modern image of what adults are supposed to be like.

The Fifth Order never appears before midlife, and then, only rarely. Adults at this Order have the greatest complexity of mind. They understand and deal better with paradox, consider the broadest ranges of opinions and governing systems, and see similarities where previously they saw differences.

It is important to note that these theories do not say that any one order is better than another. Application of the theories may help us in our lives and in our careers look at the fit between the complexity of mind of a person and his or her role or environment, in order to better support the person in growth and/or constructive accommodation to the required tasks. If an adult at the Third Order is asked to do tasks better suited to someone at the Fourth Order, and vice versa, there will be internal and possibly institutional conflict.

In the work context, for example, an adult being asked to perform more complex tasks, such as may happen in moving from a well-defined job to one with a more ambiguous structure, may feel overwhelmed and inadequate this adult must not only be able to meet demands, but also identify and choose among conflicting demands. An adult asked to perform less complex tasks, such as may happen when the adult has outgrown a role or part of the organization, may feel underutilized and under-valued.

There are many analogous applications in our various practices as we engage conflicts. Kegan has also published an excellent book applying the principles to communication techniques that will best support transformation in individuals, titled How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (co-authored with Lisa Laskow).

Remember to go to the new site —

Note: The books in this post are available at your local libraries and bookstores, of course, but you can also buy them online through my link in the right-hand sidebar at the new location.


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