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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group - 4 October 2003

A Developmental Perspective

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

"The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent,
oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive subordination of older,
lower-order behavior systems to newer high-order systems
as man's existential problems change."
Clare. W Grave


The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology compiled by Arthur Reber (1995) defines  development in four ways:
  1. The sequence of changes over the full life span of an organism.
  2. Biological maturation (goes back to the old French meaning to unwrap or unfold).
  3. An irreversible sequence of change.
  4. A progressive change leading to higher levels of differentiation and organisation. Here the connotation is one of positive progress, increases in effectiveness of function, maturity, sophistication, richness and complexity.
In almost any of the above, the 'thing' that 'develops' may be almost anything: molecular systems, bones and organs, emotions, ideas and cognitive processes, moral systems, personality, relationships, groups, societies and cultures.

When we say 'developmental perspective' in Symbolic Modelling we are referring to definition 4. These definitions have a common feature, they require a sequence of changes. Development involves a number of changes occurring over a relatively long period of time (compared to the time it takes for any single change to occur). You cannot observe human development directly. It requires observation of a series of changes.

This puts development at a level above a straightforward change process and below the level of evolution (note the fractal nature of change processes at different levels):

Progressive change in the process of Developing = Evolution

Progressive change in the process of Adapting/Learning = Development

The process of Adaptation/Learning

All developmental models share the premise that the observed system changes by passing through stages or levels which cannot be by-passed, i.e. development has directionality.

By comparing many developmental models it becomes clear that some features of development are independent of the form of the system, i.e. there are certain universal characteristics to the way in which (self-organizing) systems develop — it doesn't matter if we are observing the development of a star, of a child, or of an idea.

Developmental Stages

Reber goes on to define a developmental stage as "any period of development during which certain characteristic behaviours appear." And that the "standard criteria of scientific adequacy dictate that a stage theory have at least four critical properties:
  • It must predict qualitative differences in behaviour over time and experience.
  • It must assume invariance of the sequence of stages — the rate of sequencing may be accelerated or retarded but the order must remain the same from individual to individual.
  • It must assume structural coherence of a stage; that is the behaviours within a stage must share a common conceptual base.
  • There must be hierarchical integration of structures from stage to stage so that a latter stage incorporates and expands upon structures from an earlier stage.
Exemplary theories are Gesell's for sensory motor development, Piaget's for cognitive development, Kohlberg's for the development of morality and, somewhat more loosely, Freud's theory of psycho sexual development and Erikson's stages of man."

Developmental Perspective

Perhaps this is the moment to remind you that 'development' is not out there in the observed system — it is a perspective, a worldview, a way of punctuating experience. We have become convinced of the value of maintaining a developmental perspective because it helps us make sense of the changes our clients do and do not make. (Not to mention ourselves.)

A developmental perspective is certainly not a requirement for the successful application of Symbolic Modelling. Rather it is a wider frame within which we situate our model of the information we acquire during the few short hours we spend with a client.  It is less a doing, more a way of thinking.

Example of a Developmental Model

The following diagram depicts a developmental model adapted from research by Drayfus and Drayfus (Mind over Machine, 1988). They studied (modelled) how people developed from 'novice to expert' in several roles such as nurses, chess players, and students throwing screwed up paper into wastepaper bins. (More description of this model can be found in Exercise 1)

We adapted their description of each developmental stage so that it applies to facilitators.  We used it to explain the way we structured the NLP courses we ran back in 1996.  It still influences how we structure the Developing Group today.

- The Novice to Expert progression can apply to a single skill or a whole set of skills which go to make up a role e.g. a therapist.
- Some research shows it takes at least 10 years of continuous study to become an expert at anything, other research says it takes 10,000 hours of practice.

Pluses and Minuses

The whole point of a developmental model is that by identifying the general stages of development, educators, politicians, facilitators, managers, etc. can tailor their training, message, intervention and feedback to the appropriate developmental level attained by the individual or group.

The theory also says that higher-level behaviours are simply not available to people who have yet to reach that higher stage of development. As we said in Metaphors in Mind, a system "cannot do something it is not organized to do, no matter how  desirable that may be." Rather than encouraging people to jump to a higher level, resources may be better used to:

(a) consolidate their newly developed capacities;
(b) create the conditions for them to move to their next level of development.

While there are critics of the idea of pre-given developmental stages, we have yet to meet anyone who thinks infants should vote in elections, or that people should be allowed to drive a car without demonstrating their competency, or ...

The drawbacks of developmental models often arise from their use by people who do not (yet have the development to) appreciate the dynamic, fuzzy, systemic and multidimensional nature of the models. When this happens the categories become fixed; the label for the stage gets attached to people; the levels become hurdles for people to jump over; and worst of all, used to judge them.

While all developmental models identify certain stages and have lots to say about the differences between the stages, few of them say much about the process of moving from one stage to another. This often limits their use to diagnostic and evaluative purposes. Useful as this can be, our interest lies in modelling the processes by which people and groups develop to their next level.

Ken Wilber has gone to great lengths to describe the flexibility and subtlety of the best developmental models. He emphasizes:
  • While there are general levels or stages of development, each individual has to negotiate their own unique path through the levels.
  • There are multiple 'streams' or 'lines' of development that operate simultaneously. (e.g., each of Howard Gardner's eight "intelligences" can be considered a different stream of development.)
  • People can be at different stages of development on each of the streams.  (e.g., a person can be spiritually developed and, at the same time, an emotional mess.)
  • Most of us have had 'peak' experiences, i.e. moments at a higher level that cannot be maintained for more than a short time. These act as beacons motivating us to continue developing.
  • Each level not only 'transcends' all prior levels, it also 'includes' them. Without the prior rungs on the ladder, the current rung could not have been reached. And without those prior rungs still existing, albeit in a modified form, the current level would collapse (i.e. we still have the capacity to revert to lower levels).
  • When a level is not appropriately navigated, 'pathology' can result which is unique to that level. Generally only a part of, or an aspect of, the self gets stuck at that stage and the rest of the self has to split off so that it can continue developing.

Next are a few of Ken Wilber's many thousands of words on the subject of developmental models, (A Brief History of Everything, 1996, p. 143-152):

Every fulcrum [a threshold between two adjacent developmental levels] has a 1-2-3 structure.  One, the self evolves or develops or steps up to the new level of awareness, and it identifies with that level, it is "one with" that level. Two, it then begins to move beyond that level, or differentiate from it, or dis-identify with it, or transcend it.  And three, it identifies with the new and higher level and centres itself there.  The new rung is actually resting on the previous rungs, so they must be included and integrated in the overall expansion, and that integration or inclusion is the third and final sub-phase of that particular fulcrum.  

So you can remember a fulcrum because all of them have this same 1-2-3 structure: identify, dis-identify, integrate; or fusion, differentiation, integration; or embed, transcend, include.  

And if anything goes wrong with this 1-2-3 process, at any rung, then you get a broken leg or whatnot.  And the scar tissue of that disaster will depend on what the world looked like when you broke your leg.  And generally, the lower the rung, the more severe the pathology.

At each rung of the developmental unfolding there is a different view of the world — a different view of self and others — a different worldview.  At each rung you get a different type of self-identity, and different type of self-need, and a different type of moral stance.  

This model of consciousness development is based on the work of perhaps 60 or 70 theorists, East and West, [e.g.] Abraham Maslow, Jane Loevinger, and Lawrence Kahlberg.  

All developmentalists, with virtually no exceptions, have a stage-like list, or even a ladder-like list, a holarchy of growth and development.  These stages are the results of empirical, phenomenological, and interpretative evidence and massive amounts of research data.  

But there is an important point about these holarchies.  Even in their stronger versions the self at any given point in its development will tend to give around 50 percent of its responses from one level, 25 percent from the level above that, and 25 percent from the level below it.  No self is ever simply "at" a stage.  And further, there are all sorts of regressions, spirals, temporary leaps forward, peak experiences, and so on.  

It's a little bit like cultures — they have an average center of gravity, with some of their members falling above and some below, that center.  

People can have spiritual experiences and peak experiences, but they still have to carry those experiences in their own structure.  They still have to grow and develop to the point where they can actually accommodate the depth offered by the peak experience.  They still have to go from acorn to oak if they are going to become one with the forest.

There's a related problem, which is actually devastating. The ladder can develop way ahead of the self's willingness to climb it. Technically, we say cognitive development is necessary but not sufficient for moral development.  This means, for example — and we all know cases like this — that a person can be incredibly advanced intellectually and still be at moral stage I.  Basically, a very bright Nazi.  It's one thing to tap into a higher structure; quite another to actually live there.  And the same thing can happen with spiritual experiences.

If you want to pursue Ken Wilber's ideas on developmental models in depth we suggest reading his Integral Psychology.

An excellent example of a developmental model based on the work of Clare Graves can be found in Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowen.

The role of double binds in the developmental process

Models of development usually suggest there are 'limits to growth' at each level/stage. In other words, we reach a point where the very organisation we have lovingly sought to construct, which has got us where we are today now acts as a brake on further development. We can continue to learn, continue to accumulate knowledge, continue to improve skills, but only within the framework of our current level. The more we continue to extend ourselves within the current level, the more we bump against the ceiling of that level. This is a double bind because the more we attempt to solve our problems, resolve conflicts and chart the unknown, the more the inconsistencies and paradox of our current situation become apparent. Furthermore, each solution or resolution only strengthens the existing organisation, thereby working against us transcending it!

In such situations, a client's is likely to want to solve the problem either by removing the symptom of the limitation, or the limit to growth itself.  These are examples of homeostasis, and therefore do not address the fundamental issue that the limit is inherent in the current organization.  Limits to growth are an indication that the system is approaching a threshold/fulcrum.

Let's take a simple example. A person recognizes that they need to set goals and learn how to achieve them. As they acquire the skills to do this, they get good at setting and achieving goals. So they set themselves a goal to find out what is next. However, setting a goal to achieve 'beyond goal setting' is paradoxical. It's a Catch 22 — they've hit a limit to growth. In a limits-to-growth model, trying to solve the problem means not accepting your own way of constructing reality. And how do you do that?

[Note: Catch 22 is itself is a single bind, it becomes a double bind because people who do not accept the catch face a court-martial.]

Applying a Developmental Perspective to client work.

Three common ways we consider a Developmental Perspective when first working with a client:
  • What is their level of self awareness and self development? If the client has had a great deal of therapy, coaching or similar, they may be able to start at a higher level and work directly with patterns of behaviour.
  • What is their level of experience of setting and achieving their own desired outcomes? A low-level may mean a bind relating to having or achieving their own desires. If the client is at a high-level, what’s different about this outcome? How come their natural learning and developing processes aren’t working (or maybe they are and the client are attempting to rush their natural pace of change)?
  • Their level of expertise of the content of their desired outcome; Are they a novice, ‘I want to sky dive and I’m scared’; or proficient, ‘I have sky dived 300 times and I want to pass an advanced exam in diving’?
As the work progresses we’ll consider:
  • Has the client recently moved to a higher level and now needs to consolidate?
  • Have they been at this level sometime and are now starting to stretch and find the limits of the current level?
  • Have they encountered the contradictions of their current level and are bumping up against this level’s ceiling? If so, they may need to engage directly with the conditions necessary for transformation.
Modelling development

To notice development requires observation over an extended period of time. Three ways to do this are:
  • Model the history of the system's development.
  • Model the system (not) developing 'live'.
  • Model how the system expects to develop.
An example of the first methodology was Thomas Kuhn's modelling of the development of scientific ideas (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).  He coined the now famous phrase "paradigm shift" to describe how science moves to a new  level of thinking.  In the same way, client's can be facilitated to self-model their previous developmental processes, especially the one that established the current pattern of organization which is now limiting their development.

The second methodology requires observation over an extended period of time so that the (usually failed) attempts at development occur often enough for the pattern to be clear.  Then the pattern can be noticed in microcosm during the session which can support the client to become aware of when it happens in their everyday life.

The third approach facilitates the client to explore their expectations of how they will develop. This enables them to notice potential contradictions and limitations without having to enact them in their life and suffer the consequences. The purpose here is not so much to explore the 'ecology' of a desired outcome; rather it is to compress the time required for the client's system to learn from their own attempts at development.  The client can discover in a matter of hours what may take months to discover through feedback from the outside world.

If a facilitator does not recognise that a client is encountering limits to growth, then most likely they will support the client's attempts to change within the current organization.  Three things are likely to happen:
  • The client won't be able to solve the problem
  • They solve the problem but other similar problems arise
  • Solving the problem leads to a worse situation.
The end result is that while the limits to growth may be avoided for a short while, they are soon faced with the same limitation, often in a more dramatic form.  We call this "the system turning up the heat".

One alternative is to direct the client's attention to the current organisation's inherent contradictions using bottom-up modelling as described in Chapter 8 of Metaphors in Mind. (If you use top-down modelling then you are predefining the developmental path for the client rather than facilitating the wisdom of their system to emerge.)

Another is for the client to establish a number of simple behaviours which they expect might be the start of a new pattern. Once this pattern is operational it will support the continuance of the new behaviours, thereby creating a self-amplifying (positive feedback) loop. The challenge is the client needs to pick behaviours which they intuitively feel will enhance the system (often by some general characteristic such as increased flexibility, awareness, fitness, honesty, etc.) without knowing what kind of higher-level pattern will emerge.

This approach requires the client to notice (self-model) how their system responds to the new behaviours and how to learn to adapt to those responses so that old habits are not repeated and new behaviours are reinforced.

Facilitate the client to self-model an already operating aspect of themselves that is or has the capacity to operate at a higher level and then use that perspective to guide the change process.

We also see the potential for David Grove's latest experiment, Clean Space, to be used to facilitate people to notice limits to growth and to 'step outside' their current cosmologies (worldview).

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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