Rob Cairns - Conflict Resolution

Adult Consciousness

My guess is that most people will be familiar with the idea of consciousness development — that is, discrete stages of consciousness or development — that we all pass through in childhood in order to become adults. These stages have been understood for a long time, are well documented, and relatively easy to measure. What may come as a surprise is that more recent research suggests that this is not the end of the story. Consciousness development continues through adulthood. A number of distinct stages or levels of adult consciousness have been identified, each representing a kind of “evolutionary truce” or balance point, a resting place on the path to higher development.

Having worked with people in conflict in organizations for many years, I have come to believe that undiagnosed differences in levels of consciousness are responsible for many of the conflicts we experience at work. We assume that others share our world view; that they are using the same logic that we are. When confronted with the same facts, we expect that other adults will make the same meaning that we do. When this doesn’t happen it can be very frustrating, and we are at a loss as to how to proceed.

An understanding of the differences in consciousness can be of tremendous help in clarifying what’s really going on in any given conflict, and allow us to connect more compassionately with others who previously we just didn’t “get.”

Before describing the stages of consciousness development identified by Robert Kegan, I would like to make a few general points. The first is that it is important to understand that because one person is a little further along the developmental path than another, this does not make them any better or more worthy as a human being than the other. We all go through all of the lower stages in order to reach the higher ones. However, it does mean that at this point in time, those in the higher stages may be better able to see, understand, and cope with their environment. They are likely more responsible, or response-able.

The second point is that any given individual will have a center of gravity around a particular level of consciousness, but will not spend all of their time there. It is possible to slip back down to the next lower level at times, and also to spend some time at the one above, depending partly on environmental circumstances, and partly on where the person is in their evolutionary/developmental journey.

At each successive stage of development, the previous stage must first be differentiated (taken as the object of attention in some way), and then integrated and included in the new level. As our consciousness develops, we gain the capacity to mediate the competing demands of these various levels of attention and awareness. We have to name it to claim it. That is, before progressing, we first must see our current strategies and perspectives clearly enough to understand in what ways they are working for us, and more importantly, in what ways they are not. Conflict provides an ideal opportunity to achieve this kind of understanding.

This process of evolution/development is ongoing throughout adult life, and can be disorienting and deeply distressing for those in the throws of transition. This can manifest itself in terms of internal conflict, and/or conflict between the person and others in his/her environment. Working through this conflict with assistance from a qualified coach or mediator can help ensure that the full potential of the opportunity for growth that it presents is realized.

The Stages of Conscious Development

1. Imperial Balance

The first level of consciousness I want to describe is actually Kegan’s second level, which he calls the Imperial balance. This kind of consciousness is normally found in children around the age of 10 to 16. My reason for including it in this discussion is that in my experience, some adults continue to make meaning at this level. For example, Kegan says that most inmates in prisons are at this stage of development. Adults at this level of consciousness understand the world in terms of rules and roles, and are able to mediate their own egocentric/impulsive behaviour to some degree, rather than being subject to it as they were at the previous level.

Self-sufficiency and competence are important, and people at this level can appear competitive, even inconsiderate or manipulative to others. At this level, people are subject to, and embedded in their own needs. They do not consider their interests and needs, they are their interests and needs.

2. Interpersonal Balance

The next level after Imperial is called the Interpersonal balance. At this level, rather than being their needs, the individual has needs. That is, they can take their needs, and the needs of others as an object of attention. Furthermore, at this level people can begin to coordinate their own needs with the needs of others. They understand the world in terms of interpersonal relationships, which previously they had no understanding of.

As Kegan describes it, it becomes possible for a person to “construct the meaningfulness of shared agreements, and integrate his own authority with that of an employer’s” at this level. In fact relationships at this stage become a part of the very construction of self identity. Needs for inclusion, approval, and trust are paramount, and the capacity for collaborative self-sacrifice and mutuality is born. Meaning is derived from how others see us. For others at higher levels of development, this consciousness may be experienced as needy, stifling or even devouring. We may feel burdened by others’ expectations that we will continue to support them or prop them up.

3. Institutional Balance

The Institutional balance follows the interpersonal. At this level, other people’s expectations become less determinative, and a newly internalized sense of self is developed. This awareness “brings inside” the conflicts which were previously located between oneself and another. In this stage, guilt becomes a matter of violating one’s own standards rather than others’ expectations.

Self authorship, the capacity for independence, and meaning making in terms of culturally derived values and ideology come to the fore. Rather than being their relationships, and drawing their sense of identity from them, people at this stage have relationships. That is, they are able to take them as the object of their attention, construct boundaries around them, and effectively mediate the competing demands of the various relationships they are a part of.

This is possible because, for the first time, people at this stage have a self-organizing and self- defining system of identity that operates at the level of abstract or generalizable rules and forms. To people at the next level, it may seem that they are not in direct contact, as if the institutionally oriented person is being filtered through some internal, self-possessive system.

4. Interindividual Balance

The last stage described by Kegan, and the last one that a mediator is likely to encounter in practice, is the Interindividual balance. At this level a qualitatively different kind of intimacy emerges, and Kegan goes so far as to say that it is the first level where real adult intimacy is possible. This intimacy is, for the first time, the self’s aim rather than its source (as it was in the interpersonal balance).

Consciousness is oriented toward the interplay, relationship, or tension between different values, ideologies, and systems. Contradictions and paradox become more recognizable as such, and there is a greater openness to reevaluation and consideration of context in meaning making.

There is a recognition that “it is possible to construct generalizable rules, which, however internally consistent they may be, seem perilously to ignore the particulars they organize.” This level sees motion, process, and change as the building blocks of reality, rather than any particular form, construct, standard, or convention.

They are able to stand apart from their own personal system, and seek information by which it might be modified. Reciprocity becomes a matter of “preserving the other’s distinctness, while interdependently fashioning a bigger context in which these separate identities interpenetrate.” Intimate relationships at this level are oriented toward, and support the process of continual change, growth, and development of the relationship and the individuals in it.


I will write more in future articles about how this developmental perspective can be of use in addressing particular kinds of conflict in the workplace. For now, I will close with two general points.

The danger in our conclusion that we are being manipulated, devoured, or mediated by some kind of filter when confronted with an adult with a different world view or logic from our own is the assumption that the real person is being withheld from us. It is even possible that we may believe we have been betrayed, when in fact the problem can be more accurately understood in terms of our flawed understanding of these differences and the limits they impose on meaning making. In some cases it is simply not possible for others to construct the same meaning that we do, even when presented with the same data and observable facts. In other cases, what is observable from one person’s perspective may be inconceivable from another’s.

Another potential pitfall for mediators to avoid is the temptation to relate to the parties in mediation in terms of these indicators of development, rather than to the person who is developing. Establishing the context of the shared journey of growth that all of us (including the mediator) are on should be the first order of business in any mediation that hopes to contribute to the transformation or growth of the parties along the way to finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs. I think the mediator can facilitate this process by empathically communicating understanding of the client’s experience of confusion, and of the dilemma involved in the evolutionary/growth process which is presenting itself in the context of a given conflict. Mediation can provide a context for a new self to begin to emerge, and to understand itself in non-judgmental terms.

bird returning to nest

Growth can be gradual, and it can also involve sudden (sometimes terrifying) leaps