WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan

This book caught my attention because so much of my practice is working with people in conflict who are either unwilling or unable to change, even when it seems objectively in their best interests. The book is written by two psychologists who are particularly interested in adult development and mental complexity. They discovered through many years of research that some adults were able to evolve whole patterns of increasingly complex and agile ways of apprehending the world. In this book they explain what those different levels of advanced development involve, and more importantly, provide strategies for people to work towards them.

The authors recognise what is a common challenge for many adults – while new insights may be exhilarating, they are usually insufficient in themselves to bring about lasting change. This is an important acknowledgement for those of us who coach others, and who often feel pleased when clients have those ‘ah-hah’ moments. As David Drake (founder of Narrative Coaching) points out, those “ah-hah’ moments are often followed by an “uh-oh” when the client isn’t able to effect any meaningful or sustainable change based on this new insight. The authors explain that in order to make sustainable changes people need new mindsets, not just new knowledge or behaviours.

The authors introduce three adult meaning systems that represent more advanced development / mindset. These are:

1. The socialised mind
2. The self-authoring mind
3. The self-transforming mind

They describe how adults at each of these stages make sense of the world, and operate within it, in profoundly different ways.

The socialised mind:
• We are shaped by the definitions and expectations of our personal environment.
• Our self coheres by its alignment with, and loyalty to, that with which it identifies.
• This can express itself primarily in our relationships with people, with “schools of thought” (our ideas and beliefs) or both.
• Team player, faithful follower, aligning, seeks direction, reliant.

The self-authoring mind:
• We are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal “seat of judgment” or personal authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations.
• Our self coheres by its alignment with its own belief systems / ideology / personal code; by its ability to self-direct, take stands, set limits, and create and regulate its boundaries on behalf of its own voice.
• Agenda-driving, leader learns to lead, own compass, own frame, problem solving independent.

The self-transforming mind:
• We can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organization is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and opposites; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other.
• Our self coheres through its ability not to confuse internal consistency with wholeness or completeness, and through its alignment with the dialectic rather than either pole.
• Meta-leader, leader leads to learn, multiframe, holds contradictions, problem-finding independent.

The authors describe that to meet an adaptive challenge, we first need an adaptive formulation of the problem (i.e. we need to see exactly how the challenge comes up against the current limits of our own mental complexity), and, second, an adaptive solution (i.e., we ourselves need to adapt in some way).

The book provides a four-question foundation for exploring why people are stuck in their existing mindset:

1. What do they really want?
2. What will they do to keep from getting it?
3. Why do they persist in the behaviours that keep them from getting what they want?
4. What are their big assumptions that form the foundations of 2 and 3.

The book includes many detailed case studies demonstrating processes for individuals and groups to use this foundation to make significant mindset shifts and sustainable change.

This book is an invaluable resource for coaches, and also anyone who works with people or groups who want transformational change (and individuals who want to make changes themselves).

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