A Fresh Perspective: Integral Coaching: A Conversation with James Flaherty

Russ Volckmann

Q: I want to start with your interest in Integral. When I reviewed your book, Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others, I found the domains of competence that include the “I, it, we.” You discuss intellect, emotion, will, context and soul. I was reminded of the holon and the notion of lines of development and wondered what were the sources of your thinking about coaching and in what way was it related to Wilber’s work?

A: I don’t think that Wilber was central to my thinking. I read some of his earlier work, but I hadn’t read Sex, Ecology and, Spirituality or other more recent works. The “I, we, it” model, I got from Jurgen Habermas, the fellow that came up with it, and from reading Thomas McCarthy, the great English translator and colleague of Habermas. It offered such a rich way of working with the people.

Since high school, I have had this idea that there ought to be somebody that you could go to and bring them your life situation, your problem, your difficulty, your question and they would have so many different ways to teach you about it. They would say, “Oh, meditation, acupuncture, weightlifting or travel.” They would just be part of a doorway to a whole universe that eventually, we could get to ourselves but they found it before us and are our link to it.

I think a coach is a person who is a link to many, many different traditions. I was interested in that idea. That’s where the “I, we, it” seemed so powerful to me. I’ve used it many difference places. For example, with leaders I think it’s a great way for someone displaying their leadership in the world. How much of the “I” world is involved in what they do? How much is the “we” world and how much is the “it”

I think there is a big difference between somebody who is a technology executive who may have much greater emphasis on the “it” world and somebody who is in marketing. The latter has much more emphasis on the “we” world.

The other model, I just made up one day. I don’t know where it came from other than I was thinking about the question: What is it that someone really has to attend to, to be satisfied? And that’s where that model came from.

Q: With components of satisfaction and effectiveness?

A: Yes, the two prongs in my way of working are will it be effective in the world, being able to sense that our life matters, that we have some way of correcting or helping to think about difficulties that we see in life, but also that we are fulfilled. I think one without the other is terrible.

Q: I first came across information that you were linking your work to the idea of integral a couple of years ago when I saw a workshop description for the Cape Cod Institute. I hadn’t known that there was anybody who was explicitly moving in that direction. I contacted one of your students who said to me, “James is the most integral person I’ve ever met.” Why do you think he might have said that?

A: Delusion, a limited circle of friends (laughter). That’s nice to hear.

I’m sure that the things that we leave out of our life, that we’re not willing, open or competent to attend to yet are the things that trip us up. That’s what I like about Ken Wilber. I have met Ken and he’s the kind of person that isn’t vain and is putting forth gigantic efforts to make something very worthwhile happen in the world. I like all that and I like the idea of integral.

My basic notion of it is being in the now. That’s part one and then part two is cooperating with the way life’s going, the way the universe is going or the way God is going. I relate to it in those terms. What we humans, of course, keep trying to do is carve it down to some manageable, understandable, linear, progressive notion of what’s going on in the world.

This happens to be exactly what I wanted to be doing as well. So, along my spiritual development it has become blindingly obvious that there is something that I am part of and that I’m not the initiator of. The integral pathway or the integral world is to be a way of opening to that more and more. What is it that is unfolding? What is it that we are subject to? What is consciousness doing? What is happening

I like that it’s so big that any place that I or students land, there’s always some place to sink into or open up to. What trips us up is any place that we can get attached to quickly becomes rotten. It’s very much like putting the most wonderful food in our body. After a while, it becomes poison because we don’t keep undoing ourselves.

Q: So, it’s about being alive and being attuned to life in all of its aspects?

A: Which in a way is what is Zen is.

Q: I’m struck by your description of Fernando Flores, an obviously brilliant, dynamic and personally powerful individual, who had aspects to his style and personality that he neglected or chose to ignore. An example would be the way he related to other people. I’ve heard Ken talk about the fact that because there are all these multiple lines of development as your early work even acknowledged, that it’s very unusual, if not impossible, to find anybody who has evolved all those different lines of development to the same levels. We have a tendency to focus in on two or three and ignore one or two. I’m wondering how you would see that dynamic of development in terms of the different lines and the ability to balance or to integrate

A: In Integral Psychology, Ken has over a hundred lines, which I think is a bit, much. Maybe he can do it. In our work, we’ve come down to six streams: cognitive, relational, emotional, somatic, spiritual and integrating. I think you’re totally right on when you say people tend to gravitate to some or others to their peril. Of course, in our culture some of them are held to be way more important than others: the cognitive and the emotional. Some people say our culture is cognitive. I think our culture is essentially misguided emotionally (laughs). We have really strong feelings about ideas, not that we’re strongly cognitive and follow the ideas all the way to the bottom.

We neglect the body. We neglect the spiritual, even though the U.S. is the country that goes to church the most. But we stop way short of engaging in practices that can transform us so that we have our own spiritual experience instead of living off of what has been passed to us. I think that we have a hard time in relationships. In our work, in my individual coaching work and in training folks, we’re working on the six streams.

  • Cognitive: the ability to make observations in a particular field (e.g., business, philosophy, cooking) and then synthesize these observations into a coherent understanding
  • Emotional: the ability to discern our own emotional states, our feelings in this moment, the background emotional tone of our lives, and our emotional responses to particular events (e.g., being challenged). Also, the ability to discern the emotional state of others, even when they themselves are obvious to it or denying it.
  • Somatic: the ability to observe what is happening in our bodies (e.g., energized, tired, heavy, open, tight) and to tap into this somatic wisdom as we respond to the present moment.
  • Relational: the ability to initiative and sustain mutually satisfying relationship. This includes the ability to listen deeply, communicate profoundly, and support others’; intentions while maintaining one’s own dignity.
  • Spiritual: the ability to create a life dedicated to the benefit of everyone––not only ourselves or our families, companies, or tribes. This includes active engagement in a community dedicated to serving others with wisdom and compassion.
  • Integrating: the ability to undo all the ways we compartmentalize our lives so that our commitments and values show up in all of our words, actions, and relationships.

James Flaherty’s Six Lines of Development

Q: You have put together a quadrant model. I assume you meant it to be a holon is that accurate?

A: Yes.

I. Individual Experience and Consciousness
Thoughts and Feelings
Emotions and Mood
Body Sensations
II. Body and Behaviors
Body Chemistry
Neuromuscular System
Genetic Inheritance
III. Culture and Relationships
Ritual and Customs
IV. Environment
Technology and Tools

From: James Flaherty and Amiel Handelsman, “Integrating Rigor, Compassion, and Creative Design: The Promise of Integral Coaching SM and New Ventures West’s Professional Coaching Course,” a .pdf file available from New Ventures West, PO Box 591525, San Francisco, CA 94159. 800.332.4618

Q: You shifted the positions of the quadrants. In your discussion of these, when you get into the system quadrant you call it environment. Instead of describing how those elements live and breath within us, which is one way of thinking about holons, you talk about things we can do. In Culture, you talk about speaking and listening, which sounds like behaviors to me. In environment, you talk about organize, simplify, beautify, things that sound like values to me. I can’t tease apart the categories you are using. Could you help me?

A: Oh, it is very important, at least the way I think about it. Culture is analogous to what is inside the individual; it’s just inside the group conscious that one only has access to really by being a member of the group. You can tell me what you’re thinking, but I can’t really be inside of you, feeling, experiencing what you do. We could go to Japan and maybe even learn to speak Japanese. We could eat Japanese food and wear Japanese clothes, but we never would have Japanese consciousness. There are all the ways of interpreting life passed along through language, practices, rituals, mores, everything in that culture. Everything in the way people live passes along the way of seeing life, from what we eat to all the deep structures of language.

The environment is if you took the people away, what would be left? So, you could go down to Hewlett Packard headquarters and the company exists. That business is essentially a quadrant of cultural phenomena, the creation of people. But you can take the people out of the building and things will still be there. There is the natural world of trees, birds, the oceans and the sky, and the things that are made by people and organizations.

Q: On what Fred Kofman has called the artifacts? They have no life of their own or do they?

A: Yes, they have a life of their own that exists without humans.

The way I distinguish between the two is to take the humans out and what’s left? That world is something that coaches often leave out. But it’s a mistake to leave it out, because where we live, the physical surroundings of our life keep informing us of who we are.

Prisoners who wake up everyday in their cells–– however big they are–– are reminded of how limited their possibilities are, who other people take them to be, on and on. The same thing happens to a person who wakes up in a mansion. It reminds them of the identity they’ve taken on and it reinforces it. One of the worst things that we can say, if we are having difficulty with addictions to drugs is to have the addict go to a rehab and then go back to the same neighborhood. Even if the same people aren’t there. Somehow, the neighborhood stirs it up.

Q: You point out that integral coaching as you define it is developmental. Would you say a little bit about what you mean by developmental? Is there a particular model, perspective or framework you use?

A: No. I don’t know if I have anything different than what other people say about it. First off, I agree with Wilber and other people that there is a universal movement towards development and unless we are in a trauma or some difficulty, we will keep unfolding, we will keep developing. I think that’s the natural way and in fact, we have to work pretty hard to stop developing. So, that’s the starting point.

What I mean by development is that I think it is pretty spiritual. The more developed we are, the less self-focused we are, the less self-ascending we are. To say it in a positive way, the more connected we are to others, the more we are connected to life, the more courageous we are, the more spiritual we are and the less we are seeing things only from our view. It means we have a looser and looser hold on our so-called self, our identity. As we get more and more developed that structure called the self, frees up more and more and more until the later stages, of course, there is no thing that is the self. Yet we could still function and still walk around. We would talk, but we wouldn’t have the fixation, the obsession, the neurosis or neurotic behavior around protecting ourselves.

Q: In his work on organizations Ishaak Adizes describes the stages of development of businesses. Briefly, he sees these as a life cycle, as opposed to a continuous line of development. We go through the early stages of start up, the mid-stage levels of organizational maturity and decline, and then we ultimately have the death of the organization.

In our physical lives, we have a similar life cycle. How can we think about development in the way you talked about as being continuous, at least in the individual life when we have that “bringing to a close” our physical capacity to develop? How you make sense of all that?

A: My way of thinking about development is that we are less and less identified with this body, this personality, this history. We have an experience that we are something bigger. It gets expressed in this body, but we’re not limited to this body and this personality or whatever has happened to us. Almost everyone has had some experience of that.

Often times, there is some strong emotional event. Sometimes it’s happens when it looks like our death is approaching or we have an ecstatic emotional experiences. For instance, the birth of a child or being in nature or some type of sexual experience can just lift us out of what we are holding onto so tightly. It is an experience that we are not this. That doesn’t mean, “Screw this, I don’t have to take care of myself. This is all fake; this is all illusion.”

It is totally real and we are totally here. But that is the partial story, not the whole story. That means that when we die, in a sense nothing happens. Yeah, the body stops, but consciousness keeps going, a different kind of consciousness and you have different content than the one you have right now.

This is a complicated question about does the physical change consciousness. It seems like it does. Give people a certain prerogative and their consciousness will change or, as you were saying, as you watch the nervous system deteriorate people’s consciousness changes.

One way I think about that is the difference between consciousness and the content of consciousness or the expression of consciousness. I think about this in a way that, to make sense to this, there is consciousness that is unchanging, unmoving. It is just luminous and has all the different things that we are conscious of. Rarely do we have the experience of being that consciousness that is having the awareness of all these things.

we’re mostly in the world of “what I am aware of” rather than the awareness itself. Awareness itself can be damaged by what happens to the body. So, that’s one of the ways I think about it. But there is one thing of course to know that and then I say, “Oh yeah, that sounds right.” But it’s a matter of living that way.

Q: Of being that way?

A: Yes, of being that way and keep letting go and letting go and letting go.

Q: In relation to that, you talk about the ten waves and the range from addressing immediate concerns to death. There were a lot of things in between. That represents a kind of developmental model for you.

A: Yes.

Q: You also indicate that in terms of the population of the world, 90% are in the first four of those and 9.99% are in the next two which leaves a number of other levels where there is practically no one around.

A: I think that’s right. Maybe I’m living on the wrong side of town or something, but that’s how it seems to me. That’s also true in David Hawkins’ and other people’s work. It is the case in Susann Cook-Greuter’s work. She has done a lot of work in developmental theories and has similar statistics. Yeah, we are in a big mess here.

we’re not going to run out of places to grow into. That’s the good news. But for me, the most important part of that model is around level 4 that is power to level 5 that is vocation. The top 4 levels are all about, “Can I get my life to turn out the way I want it turn out. Can I get what I want in life? Can I protect myself; can I find security for me and my family or me and my clan?

In vocation there is the turning question, “What is life asking of me? What is it that I am born for?” I think it’s not the case we are born to start a company or sell software or stuff that we get so wrapped up in, hit more home runs or something. It is something else. Once we open to that, then there is the possibility of becoming fully ourselves, the possibility of our own individual suffering diminishing and our making a contribution to others.

Q: Does that mean that once you get past the vocation stage that really what you are doing is peeling away these other descriptions that you have of these stages, negative self-assessment and all that?

A: Nasty title -negative self-assessment, narcissism, suffering, all those things. It’s freedom within those things. It’s not freedom from it or peeling it away.

Q: Those are part of the realities of our existence and we are free within them.

A: Yes.

Q: With these distributions of populations across categories, what are the implications of your model in working with leaders in organizations? How do you think about that?

A: Most everyone at or near of the top of organizations, when they ask for coaching, they’re asking for somebody who is in crisis. This is a gigantic percentage of the people that we end up coaching. 80% of the people are working on some topic around balance. People are neglecting big parts of their lives and having the consequences of this. Or they seek being able to be skillful at speaking or in building effective relationships. Or they want the emotional intelligence and so on that to go into conversations. And then power: being able to stay focused, concentrate their power in some particular direction, watch where power leads in terms of negative emotions; that’s pretty much what people need.

I think when they say leader, they mean someone who’s powerful, someone who can say as Eisenhower said before D-Day, “We are going to France with these thousands of ships, tens of thousands of people and we are going to make it happen.” That is what most people look for in a leader. Of course, that notion is certainly inadequate these days, because not too many people are lining up to be soldiers and the world is much more complicated than that. It isn’t so clear that the territory we’re trying to take on Monday is the same territory we’re trying to take on Wednesday.

In the organizations that we tend to work with people understand that being a leader means being a whole person. This means they can make connections with other people. They can be realistic and pragmatic. But at the same time, they can aspire to great things. They are not trying to position themselves as all knowing, all-powerful and totally invulnerable.

Every now and then there is a leader with such genius that people will put up with all kinds of nonsense from them. But most leaders have to find a way of being a human being. That is someone who is learning and is appreciating other people. This requires competencies and qualities that can be developed brought forth, because they are there in some form already.

The backdrop of the developmental model is what we had in mind in our coaching work, which is, “Can we move somebody a little bit further so they’d be more open to others and less fearful, because when people are more open and less fearful they are more communicative and more resilient.” People who are further up in our developmental model are holding on tight and being self-protective, therefore they don’t learn very much.

I think it’s a big step to imagine that in coaching a person’s going to make a big step from the conversational level to the power level, but within each level, there are steps a person can take…

Q: When with people in the world of business, the capacity to really appreciate what it is we have before us and not treat it like something we have to get away from, but something we’ve got to engage with, is that what you’re about?

A: Yes, and the best leaders that I know are people that take the most difficult circumstances and they don’t try and run away from, deny or exaggerate them. What is it? How can “me” and the team respond to this with optimism?

Q: I saw something in the Harvard Business Review in one of the last two issues, that optimism is one of the key variables for highly successful executives.You also referenced the individual formal leader and the team and we’ve alluded to that a little bit in our conversation. One of the things that have been underlying my work in leadership and leadership development has to do with recognizing that there is both the leader, which I initially cast in terms of the upper left, upper right and the leadership system that I cast in terms of lower left and lower right. There is a leadership culture. There are leadership systems, et cetera and there are dynamics among these different quadrants of the holon. Have you thought about your work in terms of what is the relationship between the individual interior side and the exterior side and how you can talk about the dynamics of those relationships?

A: I have thought about that. I understand that each of the quadrants is important to attend to. Each one has, in my view, it’s own kind of laws–– the way it works or operates, that they each have a different language and each has a different operating principle. But at the same time, especially the cultural piece is not fixed. The way that people can be in a meeting or which big decisions are being made may appear as if the way they are being in the group or the culture or history is pulling them into a particular role where they are supposed act that way. I keep finding that how an individual person shows up in a meeting and responds to what’s going on shifts what’s going on so that it isn’t as fixed as it looks.

I’m, in a way, a radical in terms of the world is very much more fluid than we imagine it. How we interact with it brings it forth in a particular way. I guess in a more practical way for these relationships that we’ve had with people and the way we listen to them or the way we speak to them opens up and broadens the possibility and undoes our fixations. Am I responding to your question?

Q: The question was about the relationship among the quadrants and how you would describe that relationship. An example might be, if you want to talk about the upper left, upper right quadrants, how do you think about the relationship between consciousness awareness on the one hand and behavior on the other? What is the nature of the mutuality in that relationship? Self-management is a concept that might be used to describe that relationship. There is a mutual influence between the two quadrants and that is the self-management dynamic.

A: Self-management is about knowing yourself, knowing your history or how we tend to respond, how we tend to react, being able to discern the distinction between am I being triggered from something that’s happening in the moment or something that is coming from my past? Being able to self-observe is a part of self-management. By self-observe I mean, being able to connect my internal experience, the action I am taking and the consequences of the action. That is what I mean by self-observation.

But it’s also people tuning into their bodies, because the body has it’s own momentum of habits. I think it’s fair to say that we act according to how the world is showing up for us. A lot of that is fixed in our nervous system from our recurring patterns of behavior. We tend to pay attention to certain things, pick out things from the environment that we say counts. We act according to those and that’s what counts and what shows up for us.

The nervous system phenomenon is based upon the practices that we have engaged in. We can will our selves to pay attention to something different. But when we are under pressure or lose our concentration, we fall back to another way of looking, other ways of seeing the situation. Soon, as we see the situation in the old way, our old behavior will return. So I think that the way to change consciousness is just engage in new practices that shift the body.

Q: So, that’s where that mutuality occurs actually that you’re talking. To return to the thing about leadership, since we do think often about an agentic aspect in a communal context, when you’re working with leaders do you also work with the context, with the culture in the systems that they’re a part of or do you do all the work directly through the individual?

A: I don’t do so much system change. That’s never interested me and I don’t want to take, at this point, ten years to understand all of that.

My model of work would tend to be to work with a leader and her team. The leader gets coaching and all the team members get coaching from different members of our team, Then the whole group gets coached. We let all the synergy happen from what we’re learning and what they learn.

Q: Is there anything from the experience of working in that way that you could share that has been an important learning for you?

A: This is going to be one of those obvious remarks, but most of the difficulty the teams have are not what the people are doing, but their perception of what people are doing. When I’m in the middle and I’m hearing from the leader of the team and the team members tell me what’s going on and then I meet with our team of coaches and they tell me what’s going on, I can see somebody thinks this is going on. Therefore, they’re doing this. Therefore, that person’s doing that and the other is not even happening at all. It’s a gigantic percentage that 30 or 40% of the work that people are doing is anticipatory anxiety about something somebody picked up that they think is happening or going to happen.

Also, the startling part for me when I started working with high tech teams was how there is almost no listening going on. When you walk into these meetings, everybody has their screen on. Who knows what people are doing on their screen? Sending messages to people in the room with asides. When I was watching the meetings, some one would bob their head up and take some potshot at the presenter, having not paid attention the whole time to some idea that they don’t particularly like. The meeting gets derailed from there.

People were getting so wound up in input of information that they’re not paying attention to each other. We don’t have enough stillness to listen. A lot of the work that I’m doing with leaders is simply around being present. This is challenging. They think it is a detriment to be present: “I should be thinking about what’s going to happen next…

Q: You are writing a book?

A: …about integral coaching.

Q: When might we expect to see it?

A: I’m doing my best to get it within this year, maybe ’05. It depends on how long the publishers take. I really want to go to Spain this year to write…

Q: And your coaching program, what’s in the future for that?

A: One of the things I discovered was that while we have a year long certification program, as my developments come along and developing the other course leaders goes along, we found that a year is not enough time. Instead of trying to cram more and more in, we’re going to open up our curriculum, so that we have probably three more years of coach training after that. Also we have started a company; somehow we were able to register the name of Integral Leadership as the name of a company.

Q: You’re kidding? I’m amazed.

A: Me too. So we’re Integral Leadership, LLC. New Ventures West has been sitting, waiting for corporate business to come to us, to come from our graduates. Now we’re going to do more of a pro-active marketing effort to reach out to organizations.

Q: Anything I haven’t asked you about you wish I had?

A: Yes. For me, coaching is about supporting folks or building a partnership, a friendship or a relationship in which someone becomes freer so that their suffering is less. That’s basically what we are doing. Then there’s the matter of what are the skillful means for a particular person and we meet them where they are.

To read the complete interview click here.