Bateson’s Logical Levels: A powerful challenging coaching tool
29th September by John Blakey
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Oslo is a beautiful city and it was with some sadness that I walked through its streets this week. For eight years I have been working with leaders in Telenor, one of Norway’s largest organisations, and this week that assignment finally came to an end. I have the utmost respect for Telenor and its executives and have learnt a great deal from working with them as a coach; it has been a fantastic opportunity to practise challenging coaching skills. This week’s coaching proved no exception and, on this visit, it was Bateson’s logical levels of learning that popped into focus.
For those unfamiliar with Bateson’s work, the basic idea is that our learning approaches are not all of the same category; they sit in a hierarchy of levels. Bateson labelled the levels as follows:-
The significance of this in coaching was explored further by the NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) pioneer Robert Dilts. Dilts discerned that learning at higher levels of the hierarchy engages more brain power than those at lower levels. Another way of expressing this is to propose that coaching becomes more challenging to the coachee the higher you work in the above hierarchy. The tension will often start to rise as the focus shifts from issues of environment, behaviour and capability to deeper issues of beliefs, values and identity. Whilst it is often more challenging to work at the higher logical levels, it is also more powerful. This is because re-wiring the brain at the level of identity triggers a cascade of re-wiring at all the lower levels too. For this reason coaching at the level of beliefs, values and identity is often transformative whereas coaching at lower levels is transactional.
I referred to this model in my coaching at Telenor this week because my coachee recognised that we had shifted from working at the identity level to the capability level. I will not use details from the session itself due to the need for confidentiality, but I can give you a hypothetical example. Let’s say the topic was leadership. As a coach, here are the different questions that I could ask to engage different logical levels in the coachee:-
Environment – ‘What is going on with regards to leadership in Telenor at the moment?’
Behaviour – ‘How did you handle that leadership challenge?’
Capability – ‘What leadership competence do you wish to focus upon today?’
Beliefs and Values – ‘What are your assumptions about leadership?’
Identity – ‘Who are you as a leader?’
As you read these questions, I think you can gauge that the questions become more challenging as we climb the hierarchy. The questions progressively dig deeper into the wiring of the coachee and demand that they raise their awareness accordingly.
So how do we use Bateson’s logical levels with challenging coaching? At its simplest, if you want to increase the level of challenge in the coaching then pose questions that address issue of values, beliefs and identity. If you want to decrease the level of challenge then shift the focus to questions of capability, behaviour and environment. It is similar to how we use tension in the coaching conversation to calibrate where the coachee does their best work. As you build the trust and rapport in a coaching relationship then it is more likely that you will have earnt the right to work at deeper levels with the coachee. Failure to take up this option may lead to the coaching drifting into a ‘cosy club’ conversation.
However, a sudden shift out of the deeper levels may also indicate that underlying identity issues have been resolved. This was the case with my coachee this week when she said excitedly, ‘I’ve noticed that we haven’t spent any time in this coaching session talking about my identity as a leader, we are talking about my leadership capability’. In a flash, she had experienced the reality of Bateson’s logical levels and used its language, even though she had never come across this model before. Explaining the model to her later was a way of consolidating the understanding though it was not critical to the coaching process itself. Keep up the challenge my wonderful Norwegian friends!