Fresh Perspectives

Russ Volckmann

Reprise: A Focus on 2nd Person in a 2nd Interview with Bill Torbert

by Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Bill Torbert

I first interviewed Bill Torbert in 2002.

In fact, he is the only person I have published in “Fresh Perspectives” twice in Integral Leadership Review. In part this is due to the respect with which I hold him and his work. It is also a reflection of the fact that in the last year or so Bill’s life has gone through some significant changes, including retirement as Professor of Management at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Earlier he served as the school’s Graduate Dean and Director of the PhD Program in Organizational Transformation. During his tenure the School of Management experienced considerable growth in numbers of students, as well as reputation among graduate schools of business. Bill is one of the early members of the Integral Leadership Council. His work on Action Inquiry and research of developmental levels of individuals and organizations has been unique and important as contributions to our understanding of Integral Leadership. His models help us identify stages of development in collective, as well as individual holon models and maps.

You can read more about Bill at and at where many of his writings are available for download.

Russ: Bill, it’s great to have a chance to talk with you and to explore the Developmental Action Inquiry work that you’ve done. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

Bill: Great, me too!

Russ: One of the things that strikes me about Developmental Action Inquiry is that there seems to be more than meets the eye on first encounter. Mark Edwards has compared it, or at least contrasted it, with Ken Wilber’s work, and treated it as a metatheory. In the years of having read your work, I’ve never thought of it in those terms, so it caused me to reflect in some different ways. One of the things that really struck me is that it addresses something that I’ve always struggled with in terms of Integral Theory, which is the attention to process. It seems to me that one of the things about Developmental Action Inquiry is that the attention on process is so vivid and I’d love to hear more about that.

Bill: Yes, well, that’s a really nice way of pinpointing an issue, because in several ways, I think Ken is missing the second-person in his theory. He has the individual (first-person) and the collective (the third-person), in the kind of static, two-by-two table I’ve never liked (except for the purpose of computing the very important chi square statistic on nominal level data). As if that isn’t non-processual, non-dynamic, and non-second-person enough, Ken also claims that developmental theory doesn’t operate at the social level, which is as completely wrong as I’ve ever found him to be. (He talks about this in Integral Spirituality [in the chapter on “We”].)

I particularly want to contest the fantasy that Ken presents about how Friday night poker games work and how they do not go through distinct developmental action-logics (pp 150-151). I call his example a fantasy because he makes it up. He is not claiming to describe the history of an actual Friday night poker game. His general claim is that if all six members of the poker game scored ‘blue’ on the values line, then ‘blue’ would be the dominant mode/ language/ resonance of the group from the start, but that if four of the members left and were replaced by ‘green’s, then “the dominant mode of discourse will quickly shift” to green “skipping all sorts of stages.” But there are many reasons why the group may not shift so quickly in spite of the new majority. For example, the primary ‘blue’ organizer may still be the leader and primary culture-arbiter; or various ‘blue’ rituals may exist within the group that inhibit rapid cultural evolution.

Moreover, even if a group “quickly shifts” more than one action-logic, that does not mean that there have not been interventions and events that shifted it one action-logic at a time (if someone were to actually look closely, rather than simply make up a story that fits their point). Since I myself am someone who generated a developmental theory of group and organizational development based on the close empirical study of actual situations and then tested it in consulting interventions for forty years, Ken’s construction of evidence to support his point seems a little flimsy to me.

From my point of view also, although third-person research on the past is the primary form of social science research practiced in universities and summarized in Ken’s vast literature reviews, and although first-person research is the primary form of research passed through lineages of spiritual inquiry, I view the primary mode of social science research as the second-person present. It is a process that’s going on right now, with more or less mutual awareness and influence, between you and me in this conversation. This is where the leadership dynamics frequently occur that help to transform first-person and third-person action-logics. And in my view, the most significant forms of validity-testing in social science lie in triangulating among first-, second- and third-person types of research.

Now as to whether my theory of individual, organizational, and scientific development is a metatheory, in a certain way developmental theory is–per se– both a theory and a theory of theories (each action-logic is a theory of how the world works). I’ve extended that notion to organizational reality or grou reality, which Ken thinks doesn’t work, but I think does. And I’ve extended it to scientific paradigms. So I think it’s fair for Mark Edwards to call it a metatheory.

Russ: Historically, much of your work has been about the interplay between the individual and the collective, you being the individual and the rest of the world being the collective.


Bill: Well, right, except that the scenario was always a second-person scenario, right? It was always me trying to run the Yale Upward-Bound Program and seeing what happened day-to-day and seeing whether the theories actually operated in second-person reality. Or it was about me trying to run a 400-person class at SMU. I didn’t name it first-, second- and third-person until somewhere in the 1990’s. I realized in retrospect I had been doing it since the beginning. I had been engaged in first-person spiritual practices. I’d been engaged in second-person transformational educational processes–T groups and Tavistock groups and so forth. I’d been trying to learn some form of third-person transformational action research through my PhD program at Yale. These were always clashing with one another. Nobody else was trying to do all three, so it was always very difficult to explain what was going on. It took me about 30 years to get the right words.

Russ: At Yale you were working with Chris Argyris, is that right?

Bill: Yes.

Russ: His notion of orders of learning and things like that seem to have been a big influence on you.

Bill: Absolutely. He had a more dichotomized type of theory where he would talk about Model 1 and Model 2. Model 1 was a description of the interpersonal and organizational reality that the early-stage action logics or worldviews create together. Model 2 was his version of a post-conventional, self-constructed reality that would be able to be critical of itself and to be more internally consistent and more integral. He never liked the idea of the developmental stages, but in fact, I think they help explain why he was often unsuccessful when he tried to help people change from Model 1 to Model 2. He was actually trying to get some people to jump three and four action logics in a single bound, so to speak, and they resisted that. So his theory was extremely important to me in illuminating the second-person world. Then I found myself increasingly applying developmental theory to overlay his theory.

action logics

Russ: And it seemed to me that you were living it. The term “action inquiry” is very alive. It means that there’s something going on right now! And in your earlier writings, what really struck me was the amount of attention to your own experience and your own development that was going on in parallel to the contexts that you were working in.

Bill: That’s right. My claim is that a true social science is for us to practice on ourselves with other people. It’s not to be practiced as a disengaged activity on other people as is typical of today’s third-person social science. So it would have been pretty fake if I hadn’t been in the middle of it.


Bill: Most people won’t be forced to write about all of their early missteps the way I thought my integrity required me to write. So people kept reading some of those early books and saying, “Oooh, well I wouldn’t want to be that honest.” But I was trying to model the notion that that’s how honest we’ve got to be if we’re actually going to learn and test and challenge our own assumptions and discover that they are mistaken, and that there’s a broader set of assumptions that’s more inclusive.

Russ: I’ve been aware of a number of dissertations that have basically taken that approach. Attention to the researcher plays a vital role in the research that they’re doing.

Bill: Right. I think it should. When I used to talk with my academic colleagues I would say, “Everyone’s in favor of triangulating methods, but nobody triangulates the most fundamental methods, which is first-person, second-person and third-person. And if you want powerful triangulation, that’s how you would triangulate.”

27 flavors

Russ: And the model that you use uses a first-person framework of the action logics, so what I’ll do is print a table of the action logics along with the interview so we don’t have to go over that. And then on the collective level you have some parallels, and I’ll print that too.

How does second-person show up in that orientation?


First-Person Awareness Second-Person Conversation Third-Person Organizing


Figure 1: The Span of Research/Practice

Bill: In the way that I have described developmental theory for organizations. The language is organizational in nature, so you think of larger aggregates. But it can also be applied to teams and conversations. Conversations can be paid attention to as moving through stages and topping off or maybe stagnating at a certain stage. So I’ve used that same language, although again, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve taken Chris Argyris’ model and worked with it. For example, he described four governing variables for his ineffective group meetings. Those four governing variables were in effect each one of the variables for the early action logics. So the Opportunist variable was, “Win, don’t lose.” The Diplomat variable was, “Don’t elicit negative feelings.” The Expert variable was, “Be rational at all costs.” The Achiever variable was, “Achieve goals that you have defined.” So that characterizes most groups; that’s in effect four stages interwoven together.

Likewise, I re-described his later notion, his more ideal model, in terms of four later developmental action logics. The language is different from the language he used, because I don’t think he quite got the idea fully for that later one. I used his language converted into a kind of developmental conception.

chart 2

I often ask people when I’m working with them to look at these eight values that I mix up in an indiscriminate way, “Tell me, first of all, what are your four highest ideal values for how you’d like a conversation to go?” And they do that. Then I say, “Now pick out the four that you think are your actual strategies–be honest.” Then I show them how those map out on the developmental levels. It’s quite interesting because you usually get people at earlier action logics choosing unilateral power ways of getting things done in groups, whereas a more inquiring, mutual way are the values that are chosen by people that ’t have statistics on that.

Russ: One of the things you referred to in talking about second-person was the dynamics or the importance of conversation and language. When I think of language, I think of it as what Vygotsky and Mark Edwards might refer to as a “mediator.” It’s a mediator of meaning and sense-making. In your focus on the conversation on the transaction that occurs between individuals or an individual and a group, how do you deal with the phenomena of that mediator as a variable–language as a mediating variable?

Bill: Well, a lot of the research is about precisely the spoken words that we say in meetings–what we’re trying to pay attention to and to help a meeting get better. For years I tape recorded meetings, transcribed those recordings, and then scored the transcriptions to try to understand how the conversations were evolving. I would use developmental notions to try to capture that. I have a number of articles in which I’ve tried to show how pieces of the conversation had an interaction logic corresponding with a certain developmental level, and then what happens to transform that action-logic.

A meeting typically will begin with talk from whomever brought the people together for the meeting–it’s fairly unilateral at the beginning. Then at a certain point there may be involvement of some kind or another by the other members of the meeting. Well, that’s a transition to a different stage. Then perhaps the group makes a decision together. Then the question may become, “Are we thinking about the right thing here? Are we going about this the right way?” That then becomes a second-level process in this conversation–the conversation managing its own norms–that would be another stage. So some of my writing is very empirical about that, trying to show the actual transcripts and so forth. Almost no one has read that writing, I might say, but it has been published.


Russ: Are those articles or are they in one of your books?

Bill: Some of those are articles, and that’s one of the reasons they get lost, but you can also find close attention to meeting transcripts in my early book on the Yale Upward Bound Program – Creating a Community of Inquiry (Wiley, 1976) – and later in the first version of my book with Dal Fisher – Personal and Organizational Transformations (McGraw-Hill, 1995).

Russ: A reason for getting into this whole notion of the first- and second-person dynamic and language is, the assumptions we bring about how we develop meaning and how we make sense in the world. One of the distinctions is the difference between what some have called the “monological approach” and the “dialogical approach.” I think of the monological corresponding to the American ideal of the individual. Everything comes from within. With the dialogical, it says essentially that from the very beginning, even before we’re born, we’re interacting with our environment, and the whole sense-making dynamic occurs as a result of that interaction, not just something that’s internal to the individual. I’m wondering how that plays out in your thinking about second-person here.

Bill: I sometimes say I’m going to publish a book whose subtitle will be: “Against Monotheism, Monogamy and Monologue.”


Bill: I’m against those–not because I think they’re absolutely wrong, but because I think we’ve put too much focus on this type of individual or atomistic approach and the collectivist or wholistic approach. I do give priority to the interactional and to the second-person. I do put second-person research in the present at the very center of all possible research methods. There can be first-person research in the present, which would be me actually trying to attend to what’s going on here, not just in terms of the content of what we’re saying, but also in terms of how we’re making each other feel and what our intent is. And the recording you are making of our conversation is a third-person form of research which turns our interview into third-person data available to everyone to study and analyze in different ways. So there can be first- and third-person research on the present, but it’s the second-person research in the present that brings those together, so I give dialogue priority over monologue.

It may just all be an excuse because I’m not good at giving lectures. I don’t know. I’ve had to fall back on a dialogue instead, but I do view it as primary. Language is fascinating because on the one hand it’s a third-person phenomenon; in a sense, everyone in the culture shares it. But in another sense it’s very much a second-person phenomenon in that one is re-sculpting it in each encounter. At the early action logics, we tend to spout clichés and things other people have said. Our sentences don’t sound unique. Presumably the more one is paying attention to the present, the more one is uniquely searching for the right language on each occasion. Therefore, the more likely the result is going to be new prose…if not new poetry.

Russ: You’ve spent all these years putting this together and working it in your developmental element and working it into theory with your colleagues, so what’s next?

Bill: I think I’ve had a wonderful series of revelations since retiring from academia. One is that I was in fact putting more attention on the academic work than on developing my friendships, even though my espoused version of the good life told me that I ought to order good money, good work, good friends, and good questions as each progressively more primary than the previous. Thus, I ought to have been paying most attention to the cultivation of lifetime friendships under the sign of inquiry, and now I think I’m actually beginning to do so. I now see constellations of inter-independent friends as the fundamental vehicle for human development, human security, and dying a good death.

What’s new to me is that I no longer believe that organizations as contract units are likely to really support transformation as well as friendship constellations. I think having any idea of how to put time and energy into making lifetime friendships is something we Americans are particularly poor at. But the world as a whole is also putting very little energy into making friendships under the sign of inquiry. My view is that would cause the most rapid human transformation. If more people could begin to understand how they could create friendships that would help them transform to action logics that make the friendships better, makes love better, and makes unintentional suffering less likely.

Russ: What might be some examples of what you’re doing there?

Bill: I started to hold a series of three-day what I call “Alchemist Workparties” that are all by invitation to my oldest, as well as some of my newest, deep friends. Anyone else could presumably hold these as well, when they get to the point in their life that friendships mean that much to them. I particularly think that people entering the third period of their life–if they haven’t already–turn to this. When you think about it carefully, good friends are important to the third third of life. These alchemist workshops are attempts to bring friends together–both old and new– to explore our friendships and deepen them while supporting and confronting one another in our development. Everyone in the event shares in the leadership. The point is to generate a peer community of inquiry.

I’ve learned so much from the friends who have not chosen to attend. Whether that means that we have to break up or whether I can be generous enough to imagine some other way of getting together than my own favored way is constantly being tested. I’ve had lots of really important learnings about my own ways of doing friendships in the past few years from trying these initiatives. Ultimately the idea is for other people to try them and different initiatives of course, because people will be at different points in their lives. There’s quite a lot of fire in alchemist friendships. Most people may want to learn how to breathe and swallow fire before they join that kind of a group.

Russ: I sense considerable diversity in your group.

Bill: You definitely do. It’s very exciting to have had people from their late 20’s through their 70’s. We often have had a broad age range and of course, at my age, my friendship constellation is cross-generational. Cross-generational dialogue is among the most difficult and the most rewarding. That’s something one can learn more about in an intergenerational setting.

Russ: These meetings last for several days?

Bill: That’s right. And we’ve learned that it’s very important to have a separate meeting of men and women at some point during the three days. We’ve learned that at that moment when those separate meetings occur, they then generate a whole new level of energy in the workshops. That has been an enjoyable discovery.

Now I’m at the end of the time of giving those workshops, because I have a very large friendship circle now and I am in danger of not being good friends with my good friends. I need to concentrate more and work in a deeper way with my closest friends. From now on, anything that I do that becomes a new book will be done in a collective or second-person environment.

Russ: Before we go to the new book, the question I have about things like the Alchemist Group, as an example–I’m sure there are other examples within organizations too–but one of the levels of action of course is the first-person, about self-development. There’s a third-person or at least a collective developmental aspect in terms of the development of the group per se. You’re saying these groups are also about this relationship development which involves first- and second-person.

Bill: Well, yes. To be more specific about it, I think if people thought about it more carefully, they’d want to put more emphasis on developing a circle of friends that would stay with them until death. They would be present at our death. Or we would be present at theirs. One of the moments when second-person research is most important is at the transformation from death into whatever is next. I think it makes a difference how we are supported at that time of transition. The idea of having lifetime friends present at the moment of death, well, one can’t do that unless one has spent a lifetime developing lifelong friends.

Russ: So to the book–what is it?

Bill: I can’t say precisely, because it keeps changing on me. But it’s a book about friendships by friends, for people who want to begin playing around and reading about unusual relationships, and moments of transformation because of the kind of confrontation or support that people receive from one another. For example, one of the things that we’ve developed is trio phone calls. I think people making agreements to talk in trios once every month or so–if they’ve had some other experience together and have some understanding or feeling about how to create an inquiry group–then these trio phone calls can be marvelous instruments for both enriching the relationships and developing greater intimacy amongst those three. It also helps people with their other issues in life–their other relational issues. I think we could write a whole book about trios, and as opposed to monogamy, it could be pretty racy.


Bill: We’re hoping to make development sexy again, you know.

Russ: Yes, the ménage a trois. What’s the important difference between the trio and the dyadic conversation?

Bill: Very good question. I think the idea is that a trio manifestly represents a dialectic. The three forces that interact cause things to happen whereas dyads or couples very often get stuck in polarized positions, because there is no third person there to mediate. That’s why couples’ therapy can be so helpful. The third, the therapist, can help to release the couple from its locked position and polarity. My idea is that we have spent way too much time in couples for the last five centuries. Although I’m not against couples, I’m for spending a lot more time in larger intimate groups to discover how they can generate intimacy and transformation.

Russ: Interesting. So, any other projects that you have on tap for the near future?

Bill: I’m very slow at bringing anything out, so this is more than enough.


Bill: I just sent a letter out to the friends with whom I’m actually engaged in this quest for lifetime friendship. I sent it to 104 people, so there is a lot to do in this teensy little universe.

This has been delightful. I’ve enjoyed concentrating on the second-person scene, and that gives me a chance to talk about what I do in a good way, I think. I appreciate your choosing that topic.

Russ: Thank you so much, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.

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