The Model Is Not the Person: Warnings About Assessments

The following is an excerpt from James Flaherty’s upcoming book, Coaching Now.

Integral coaching employs three central models. Before I begin talking about them, I’ll give you the warnings that all model-givers provide but that are often ignored. The first warning is that the model is not the person. We know this more broadly as “the map is not the territory.” An obvious point, soon forgotten: really nobody is an extrovert, nobody is an Enneagram “Type Nine,” nobody is “green” in Spiral Dynamics. These are all labels that result from a particular analytical process. The process can easily distort and limit the true reality and possibilities inherent in the person. They do have the advantage though of being convenient and facilitating conversation and so are widely used. They can have the terrible downside of limiting thought, crushing creativity, and putting a strong cage around our appreciation of others.

Once we’ve applied and held strongly to such a label, we easily stop observing any behavior that does not fall within that which is expected from it. We don’t observe the introvert speaking up; we overlook the Enneagram “Five” being warm, fearless and generous; and so on. It’s bad enough that we have to speak our native language of English, French, or whatever; our language already determines what is possible for us to observe, think about, or imagine. Further downgrading our ability to be in contact with actual life by strongly holding to a label makes the work of coaching that much more difficult.

The second warning is a corollary of the first. It arises when our clients begin to explain themselves, excuse themselves, justify themselves by employing a label that falls out of a model. For example: “I can’t get along with her. She’s ‘orange’ (as in Spiral Dynamics) and I’m ‘yellow.’” There are endless variations of this behavior and they are all unhelpful.

A third potential problem is using what we discover in employing the model as a way of manipulating our clients. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) got a particularly bad name because its practitioners were doing this. Another difficulty is when we forget that assessment models are snapshots and that life flows before, around, and after the snapshot is taken. Do we still notice subtle changes once we have labeled our client?

I am not saying anything new so far, but when we fall into these traps our coaching becomes stale, crude, abrasive and sometimes even cruel. They also reinforce our habit of reification, which means taking a phenomenon that is in process, in flow, and making it into a solid, unchanging object; for example, saying “I have a relationship” the same way as “I have a briefcase.”

How do you keep all of this in mind when you are doing your coaching work, especially when we are quite busy ourselves? I recommend that you have a short, personal ritual that demarcates your coaching work from the rest of your life. Perhaps you sit in meditation for a few moments, or you do some tai chi movements, or jot down what’s occupying your mind. I also recommend that you institute a practice of asking yourself at the end of every coaching session, “What is more mysterious for me about this person?” I think you’ll find it much more useful to open to the mystery of the person instead of coming to conclusions about him.

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