Out of the Box Coaching and
    Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
    Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. Revised: March 28, 2015








Transformational Learning
(More about this in Chapter Two of Out of the Box Coaching with the Enneagram)

In Masterful Coaching Robert Hargrove distinguishes between "incremental learning" (single-loop), "reframing" (double-loop learning), and "transformational learning" (triple-loop). These distinctions are based on the original work of Gregory Bateson, and extended by Chris Argyris and Peter Senge.

Most coaching takes place at the incremental level (embody new skills and capabilities), sometimes at the level of reframing (reshape patterns of thinking), but seldom at the transformational level (a shift in context or point of view). Hargrove articulates the goal of transformational learning:

"...empowering people to transform who they are and reinvent themselves by helping them to see how their frames of reference, thinking, and behavior produce unintended consequences... to surface and question the way they have framed their points of view about themselves, others, or their circumstances with the idea of creating a fundamental shift" (p. 22).

While change at the incremental and reframing levels is quite common among my clients, I've found transformational change to be more of a challenge. Among the many reasons,

  • it's difficult to see implicit patterns that underlie our human systems,

  • seeing these patterns "unmasks" us, shows how what we've been doing isn't working, and

  • we resist facing up to anything at odds with our self-image.

The Enneagram is a powerful tool to help us break through our resistance to change and open ourselves to transcending the boundaries of personality. The following three levels of learning illustrate each stage of potential change (new skills, shift in attitudes/behavior, shift in point of view):

  1. Incremental (Single-Loop) Learning refers to learning new skills and capabilities through incremental improvement, doing something better without examining or challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. Let's say an Enneagram Six is concerned because his boss sees him as "negative," and he agrees to practice a creative problem-solving technique. Instead of saying, "That won't work because it will take too long," he learns to incorporate his concerns into a solution statement such as "I think that could solve our problem. Let's talk about how we can shorten the production time." His boss compliments him on being more "positive" and he's happy to no longer be criticized. He may still tend to look at the negative side of things, but he knows how to cope with that behavior in a way that keeps him off the hook in his job.

  2. Reframing (Double-Loop Learning) occurs by fundamentally reshaping the underlying patterns of our thinking and behavior so we’re capable of doing different things. This level of learning often enfolds single-loop or incremental learning, but goes beyond it. This is the level of process analysis where people become observers of themselves, asking, "What's going on here? What are the patterns?" It's still largely an act/react cycle, but it can get the underlying psychological superstructure to start wobbling. This is where most individual and/or organizational change takes place. This is also where the Enneagram can provide a powerful roadmap for what to observe.

The style Six mentioned above, for example, might become aware of his general tendency to focus on what could go wrong, to look for hidden agendas. So, in addition to learning how to approach problems with solutions, he begins to see how his pattern of thinking tends to leave out "what could go right." Now he's able to step outside of himself a bit and notice how he filters out the positive, typically doesn't even consider it. He's no longer defending himself from his boss's criticism – he "gets it" that in this way, he is negative.

When he finds himself focusing only on the negative, he might take out a piece of paper, write down all the negative possibilities in the left-hand column and counter these with positive possibilities in the right-hand column (a "single-loop" skill applied in a "double-loop" context).

If he notices and responds to this behavior consistently over time, he may find he spontaneously notices both sides of the equation and this, in turn, shows up naturally in his language and in his problem-solving capabilities. If so, the experience of reshaping his thinking and behavior has automatically taken him to the next level of learning: the "transformational" or "triple-loop" level. In this one respect he is no longer the same person that he was. He now experiences himself and his environment differently.

  1. Transformational (Triple-Loop) Learning is a shift in our context or point of view about ourselves. Something we thought and felt (and had manifested in our behavior) has come into question. We may feel exhilarated, stunned, shocked, humiliated, disoriented, and/or depressed at points during this process; the change may happen gradually or all of a sudden; but in this particular context, we will never be the same (there are other contexts by which we operate and which are still open areas for exploring assumptions, etc.).

The style Six mentioned above, for example, may have felt embarrassed to own up to his negative focus because he's always seen himself as optimistic. If he can continue to observe this habitual pattern as it occurs, he'll find he eventually notices it without judgment, and even beyond that will see things differently, as indicated above. Or, he might worry about it for days, putting himself in a tailspin because his self-image is suffering. If he stays stuck in this place, he won't make the shift from reframing (double-loop) to transformational (triple-loop) learning. He might conceivably even deny the validity of the feedback he's been given and shift back to the level of single-loop learning, still able to use the new techniques he's learned, but accusing his boss of being unfair, or defending himself from the possibility that he isn't who he thought he was.

Some people have the tenacity and guts to hang in and incorporate these heretofore unknown and unwanted aspects of themselves. For those who might otherwise be stuck, it helps to reassure them that what they're feeling is natural because they're letting go, in part, of an idealized self-image that has helped them cope since childhood. This difficult part of the passage can be reframed in a positive light: You might say, for example, "This is great. This means you've really shaken up a part of yourself that served you well in the past, but has been keeping you from using your full potential. You wouldn't be feeling so bad if there weren't some major developmental shifts going on in your unconscious. Your whole view of yourself is changing, and this is exactly where you should be. I'm touched that you're able to move forward with such courage. You’ll find that how you perceive the world and how you feel about yourself will begin to shift in a very positive way."

I always hold it as my goal in development work to encourage transformational learning. Rather than marketing "The Enneagram," I consider it a tool to aid in the process, emphasizing its practicality, describing my own experience, and sharing anonymous examples of how other clients have benefited. By introducing the Enneagram in this way I’ve never had clients question the process of observing their own and others' behavior. People are eager to learn more about themselves and what makes other people tick, so they can reduce their frustrations and make their lives more fulfilling. So it's fairly easy to achieve double-loop learning. Transformational learning may take a while. For one example, read "Take Time to Celebrate." For other examples, see Somebody? Nobody?