Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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For example, most of us living in the United States do not have sufficient time available to watch the full congressional sessions and hearings of the US Senate or House of Representatives. Or, quite frankly, we probably are not sufficiently interested to set aside this time. Only the “news junkies” are inclined to observe the full shadow of congressional proceedings that are broadcasted in most instances on CSPAN. We no longer even read an evening newspaper (which in most cases is now out of business). Our news comes in brief sound and video bites on a cable news station that is highly politicized (either left or right wing) or our news comes from the bits of information contained on the Internet (these bits often being just as biases as those offered on the cable channels). While the news has always been biased in most countries in the world, we now find that there is very little news. Rather, there is an abundance of interpretation and a minimization of information.

As coaches, do we collude in the emphasis on interpretation? Are we often helping our clients make some sense of their world (images on the wall of the cave) by offering our own “expert” analysis? Are we sufficiently arrogant to believe that our clients need not experience the real world in its raw form (outside the cave) or even experience the shadow on the wall without our interpretative intervention? What is it that our clients are asking for in the coaching or consulting relationship? Interpretation and analysis–or do our client want us to encourage direct experience? Are we to offer support as our clients experience the real world and receive unvarnished and full-spectrum feedback from their environment?

Learning About Learning and Living with Relativity

Ultimately, I believe that it is our role as professional coaches to not be experts – but to be thoughtful and patient educators. We are experts – but the expertise concerns helping our clients chose and learn about ways in which they can live and work inside and outside the cave. I am particularly guided in my own coaching work by the “expert” analysis offered by William Perry in his description of four different perspectives on reality. Studying the way in which young men at Harvard University reflect on their own learning, William Perry (1970) proposes that most of us move through several stages of cognitive development and sophistication as we mature (and as we learn about living in our cave). While Harvard is not much of an average place in which to explore learning and Harvard students are not your run-of-the-mill learners, Perry has captured something of importance in his identification and description of the cognitive (and ethical) development. His work seems to be applicable to all of us – including our clients_-as we confront diverse sources of expert advice.


As young men and women we tend to view our world in a dualistic fashion: there is a reality that can be discerned and there is one right answer to the complex questions we are asked. Those in authority can be trusted to reveal the truth. There are also those people who are inherently evil or stupid, and they are not to be trusted. There are indeed people with white hats and black hats. Our job is to determine which color hat they are wearing.

While many people spend most, if not all, their life viewing the world from this dualistic perspective, there are often events or people who disrupt this simplistic frame. We discover that there are multiple sources of credible information and multiple sources of potentially valid interpretation of this information. It is not clear what is true or what is real. According to Perry, the initial response to this disconfirmation is often a sense of betrayal. We were told by people we trust and respect that the world is to be seen in one way. Suddenly we see that this might not be the case.

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