Learning Partner Presences

Recently we discovered that every transformational learning journey has in it at least four distinct transition points. These points are moments in time when people on these journeys come face to face with crucial decisions. For instance, early on there always seems to be a "fish or cut bait moment" where there's a decision to make about whether to move ahead. Then, just as one's journey get moving, there's a "comprehension point" where a pilgrim must come to terms with what's waiting for them on the path ahead. Third, there are crises to face, moments when travelers must accept they'll need to risk meaningful things to finish their journeys. Finally, near the end, there's always a "moment of truth" when what it's going to take to actually finish the transformational process becomes painfully clear, and the decision whether to move ahead returns.  

Alongside this discovery, we also determined that there's a need for a distinct type of "supportive" presence at each one of these four way stations. As transformational thought partners, we've come to realize that each of us, regardless of whether we're a coach, a consultant, or a thought partner, need to have at least one professional identity available to us that can respond to the issues that emerge at each one of these four transition points. 

For instance, the "fish or cut bait moment" mentioned above is the transition point that always shows up well before a client ever starts their transformational journey. For every traveler, this way station appears in anticipation of their journey; it's that moment in time when the prospective pilgrim realizes they really will have to change big time, and they will need to do it soon. For this transition point, we've learned the presence that we, as thought partners, need to offer our learning partners is that of companion. For pilgrims, especially at the entry point to their personal transformational  journeys, their companion needs to be someone who’s able to listen with a deep receptiveness to the soundings of their unspoken worries and their vague whispers of hope. Their companion needs to be the kind of person who can listen without comment, and then ask, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” They need to be someone who can offer the steady companionship a novice pilgrim needs as they're walking up to the beginning of their transformational journey. 

 The second “presence” transformational coaches need to know how to offer is that of thought partner. A thought partner is someone who is present as first steps are taken. They're someone who possesses experience, knowledge, perspective, and most importantly, a way of thinking that's challengeable and, when shared, provokes deep introspection. For an incipient transformational journey, this identity is found in someone who talks in concrete, practical ways about the steps, back alleys, and way stations found on all transformational journeys. It helps, of course, if at this second transition point, a thought partner like this has lived the transformational experiences they’re describing. But, it’s actually OK if they haven’t. What matters most is that they’re able, without arrogance, to use all the knowledge and experience they have to frame for their partner, as a possibility to consider, a map of what their first steps out onto their bridge might ought to look like. It's at the beginning of every transformation, where a pilgrim is taking their first few experimental steps, where having a thought partner present with some sort of guide book to share is way better, and more encouraging, than having no map at all.

In the middle of every transformational journey, the third presence we need is that of witness. At this way station, we need to be able to offer our learning partners the eyes of someone who’s there as their cheerleader, someone who’s present and prepared to recognize and applaud their partner’s accomplishments and their efforts, as well as their lapses of judgment and loss of nerve. In the middle of every transformational journey, the presence a witness needs to bring to bear is the ability to recognize their learning partner’s displays of doubt, courage, despair, and determination, and, in the face of whatever’s there, offer nothing but encouragement. At this third way station, we need to notice, describe, and offer words of encouragement in response to the all the crises that are plaguing our companion. Here, in the middle of their journey, we need to have an identity that can appreciate both our partner’s courage and their doubts in ways that illuminate for them the idea that both these qualities are strengths they need for the steps yet to be taken.

Robert Kegan's research suggests that very few people ever reach the fourth way station, the one at the end of every transformational journey. So, it’s hard for us to offer one specific term that fully describes the identity that’s needed at this last station. In 1914, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem that for us seems like it comes close to describing the presence a learning partner would need toward the end of their transformational journey. Rumi describes this presence like this: “...there is a boundary to looking, for the world that is looked at so deeply only wants to flourish in love. Here the work of the eyes is done; now go and do heart-work on all the images imprisoned within you.” For us, the word that best fits this type of identity is shepherd.

Start to finish then it seems like there are at least four distinct Learning Partner presences needed at four distinct way stations across a transformational journey; Companion, Thought Partner, Witness, and Shepherd. Our experience supports these hypotheses. Does yours?