Cognitive Development
by Diane Linsley

Cognitive development is one of the most fascinating subjects
I've ever studied. It helped me to understand myself and all the
people in my life.

Check out these articles on Bill Harris's blog:

Preconventional and Conventional
Individualist
Strategist
Magician
Unitive

Identifying Stages of Development

It's hard to know exactly what stage of cognitive development a person is in - especially someone whom you don't know very well. But there are identifiable behaviors and attitudes at each stage. Here's a story that demonstrates conventional Expert level behavior:

A few years ago, a fellow was touring my garden. He saw my golden elderberry bush, and he said, "You need to put Ironite on that bush. The leaves are yellow, and that means it has iron deficiency."

I explained that the golden elderberry is supposed to have yellow leaves. To my astonishment, he didn't believe me. He said, "I took all the master gardener classes, and I know a plant with iron deficiency when I see one."

It was useless to argue, so I agreed to consider his diagnosis. What else could I do? Sometimes this is the most resourceful way to deal with Experts. And I believe in doing the most resourceful thing.

An Expert knows the one right way to do something. He must tell you his opinion for your own good, and he has an opinion on everything. Experts love giving advice. They think they know what everyone else should be doing. They know what the rules are. They are black-and-white thinkers. The word "paradox" is not in their vocabulary.

According to Bill Harris, 70% of adults in the Western world are at the Expert stage or lower. The Expert stage of cognitive development is almost halfway up the scale. I don't know if the man who visited my garden is really an Expert. Maybe he's only an expert gardener. He may be an Achiever in another area of his life. Or he may display Diplomat behaviors in certain situations.

Diplomats, Experts and Achievers are all conventional thinkers. Big changes happen when a person becomes a postconventional Individualist. It's a radical shift in perspective. It feels like there's a brick wall between the conventional and postconventional levels of development. Breaking through this wall is a major achievement, and it sets you apart from the vast majority of people.

"Most of the planet has institutionalized an underestimation of human nature and possibilities. What we take to be normality is actually a form of collective developmental arrest." ~Roger Walsh

Developmental Perspectives

In a podcast with Susanne Cook-Greuter and Beena Sharma on Integral Life, I learned that a person at each stage of development responds to feedback in a different way. Here is the range of responses:

1. Opportunist (Self-Centric, Preconventional): Experiences feedback as a personal attack. Shifts the blame to another person. May counter-attack or retaliate. Narcissistic.

2. Diplomat (Group-Centric, Conventional): Views feedback as disapproval. Concerned with fitting in with social norms. Tries to save face.

3. Expert (Skill-Centric, Conventional): Takes it personally and defends his position as an expert on the subject or turns to the expertise of other people in order to back up his position.

4. Achiever (Self-Determining, Conventional): Welcomes feedback, especially if it helps him achieve his goals and improve. Committed to changing behavior. Believes in self-control.

5. Individualist (Self-Questioning, Postconventional): Welcomes feedback as necessary to uncover his unconscious motives and learn more about himself. Interested in diverse perspectives.

6. Strategist (Self-Actualizing, Postconventional): Invites feedback for self-actualization. Sees conflict as inevitable and necessary for personal growth. Owns his own contribution to others' experience.

7. Magician/Unitive (Construct Aware, Transcendent): Holds feedback as a natural part of living systems. It is necessary for learning and change. Criticism is not fundamentally different from praise. Radical acceptance and compassion for his own and others' humanity.

Stages are Perspectives

Your stage of cognitive development can be thought of as your perspective. Each stage has a different way of interpreting the world. Once you understand these different perspectives, you can see why there is so much conflict in the world - and maybe in your own life, as well.

What happens if you can't take another person's perspective? What if you don't know that every person has a different perspective, and nobody is 100% right or wrong? You feel threatened by other people's opinions, so you try to defend yourself.

Psychologists believe that when a person is traumatized in childhood, they feel a tremendous need to cling to their map of reality, especially those parts of the map that tell them who they are. No matter how dysfunctional the map is, they cling to it as if their life depends on it. This interferes with their progress, and they get stuck in their development.

How to Go to the Next Level

The hard knocks of life can sometimes push a person to adopt a new perspective and go beyond their childhood programming. An excellent book on this subject is The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert.

Another way to progress is through education. People who are avid readers develop the ability to be open-minded and shift their perspective. The broader the education, the better. It also helps to take up new hobbies, make friends with different types of people, try new foods, and visit new places.

All these things expand your mind, eventually pushing you into a higher level of development. I spent most of my adult life on the Achiever level. But I still wasn't happy because my perspective was limited by my map of reality, even though the map was much broader than it was when I was younger. When I started meditating with Holosync, my personal growth took off, and I entered the postconventional stages of development.

How does meditation help? It relaxes your brain, which makes it easier to let go of the map that you've been clinging to since childhood. As you let go, it becomes easier to see Reality, instead of just your map of reality. You start to have glimpses of the whole puzzle, instead of seeing each puzzle piece as a separate thing. You start to see how everything is interconnected and how it all goes together.

How to Deal with Other People

If you have a difficult person in your life, you may be wondering how to deal with them. Bill Harris says that you can't talk another person out of their level of development. That was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned. Eventually, I realized that I could either stay in dissatisfying relationships or move on. Either way, I had to accept people because I didn't have the power to change them.

You can only communicate effectively when you speak the other person's language. It helps to know how they think - the perspective of their stage of development. This requires both skill and humility.

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald makes this keen observation: "We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary....  To understand other people."

Since a person can only understand perspectives that they have experienced themselves, you will find,  as you go to higher levels of development, that fewer people understand you, but you understand them.

This can be very disturbing and lonely at first. But eventually you get used to it, and you learn how to communicate with people at their own level, instead of trying to make them understand yours. I only talk from the highest perspective of my development if someone sincerely wants to know about it, and I only share what I think they are ready to hear.

Cognitive Development and Compassion

There are people in the world at every stage. Obviously, the higher you go, the fewer people you'll find at your stage because development is like a pyramid. As they say, "It's lonely at the top." On the other hand, when you reach the highest levels, you stop wishing that people were different. You learn to accept them where they are because you understand the whole process of human development.

With a broader perspective, you see that everyone is on the same path - just at different stages. If you can identify where a person is in their development, you'll understand what motivates them and how to help them. But the best part is that you don't take them too seriously when they do or say things that you disagree with. They are only acting out their level, which is perfectly normal and healthy.

This attitude makes it easier to forgive yourself and others. Whenever I feel embarrassed or ashamed of things that I did years ago, I remind myself that I was on a lower level of development at that time, and I was doing the best I could. This is self-compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that true love begins with understanding. With understanding comes compassion, and forgiveness is the natural result.

Cognitive Development and Awakening

Genpo Roshi says that a person has not experienced a true awakening until he sees how much further he still has to go. The best cure for the frustration of dealing with annoying people is to wake up yourself. Stop trying to change other people and concentrate on your own development.

Ken Wilber says that the development of a single individual is a microcosm for the evolutionary development of the whole human race. By studying cognitive development, we can learn where we are in the vast evolutionary scheme of things. It helps to know where you've been and where you are going. It also helps to know that you're not alone. And it helps to know that every stage is just stage - no matter how high or low.

So, what happens when you get to the Unitive stage? Is that the end of the road? Are you saved? Ummm,....nope! For those who make it this far, it feels like it's just the beginning. For more information, see The Stages of Enlightenment.

We are all on the same evolutionary path. Even though we sometimes experience setbacks, our overall progress is onward and upward!

Here's a guided meditation for expanding consciousness.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

As a life coach, I use many different processes to help
people with their personal growth. Click here if you are
interested in coaching with me.


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cognitive development