A Lived Moment of Vertical Growth

A Lived Moment of Vertical Growth

 "We grow on the inside when we are able to LOOK AT that which before we were LOOKING THROUGH". But what does that actually feel like when you live it, in the moment?

 Here's a real story.



MAR 21, 2024


If somebody were to ask me to summarise vertical development in one sentence, I'd take a leaf out of Robert Kegan's book, rephrase it a little and say:

"We grow up on the inside when we can LOOK AT that which before we were LOOKING THROUGH".

Image created by Alis Anagnostakis & AI


This is such a powerful and yet such an abstract statement, that sometimes you only realise it's incredible potency when you catch yourself living it. Which happened to me yesterday.

10 minutes before I was due to facilitate a webinar with over 100 people I found out that the tech set-up chosen by the organisers was going to be speaker-centric and was not going to allow me to see any of the participants or freely interact with them. My whole flow for that session had been built around engaging the audience, facilitating dialogue, seeing their reactions and letting emerge from the conversation the key ideas I was hoping we'd collectively explore.

My mind blanked out for a moment. Everything slowed down. I found myself LOOKING THROUGH my instant pang of panic which suddenly coloured my perception of my colleagues who seemed equally frozen in our joint realisation. Through a seemingly minor communication oversight we, the team hosting the event, had failed to align on the video conferencing format and now we were stuck. That panic gripped me for what seemed like a very long time but must have been only a couple of minutes.

Time seems to go by paradoxically in moments like this - very fast, as the minutes are flying till you have to face the moment you're dreading, and very slow because you feel that nauseating sensation of anxiety gripping you and coursing through your body as if you're never going to feel calm again.

The moment I got unstuck was when I was able to not just experience the anxiety and the chaotic thoughts going through my head, but actually notice them, as if standing on the outside of myself and observing what was happening. I noticed my impulse to get away from the anxious feeling by getting annoyed.

I've learnt from my research that curiosity is a powerful antidote in such moments, so I found myself wondering why was I getting annoyed. The immediate answer that came to me was: "Because it's easier to not have this be your fault!". Hmm, interesting. This brought about another thought. In fact, this was my fault because it was I who had failed to share with the rest of the team how exactly I was planning to facilitate the event and what I needed from a technical perspective.

As soon as I thought that I felt guilty. That's an even harder emotion than anxiety. It's an emotion that immediately drags after it the most painful of all emotions: shame. How could I have missed that? This team trusted me to know what I was doing. I've let them down.

In getting to this thought and finding myself sliding down the guilt/shame spiral another one of my research nuggets came to me. When you’re lost you need an anchor. Conscious intention is the most powerful inner anchor I know of. So I told myself: “Never mind all of that, none of it is going to help you now. What is your core intention here and how can you uphold it?”.

The answer was instant: “My intention is, together with this team around me, to create a meaningful experience for the participants who are about to enter this virtual room in 5 minutes.” The mere act of asking that question and giving that answer in my head brought a wave of relief and lifted the heavy slab of anxiety, guilt and shame off my chest. The world unfroze again.

In the meantime, one member of the team was frantically looking for a technical solution. There was none. The video format was fixed. The only thing that could change was my facilitation plan. Even more importantly, the only thing that could change was how I chose to meet this moment.

I keep writing and talking about walking the talk of vertical development, and about doing the work of adult development on yourself first before you support anybody else on this path. But what does DOING THE WORK look like in this very moment?

I found myself taking a deep breath, centring on my core intention again (seriously, do try anchoring in your intentions and notice how it helps clear out the clutter in your head and put your ego in its place because, most of the time, it really isn’t about you, however much you’d like to make it about you!). I then found myself asking and learning, in the last three minutes before participants came in, what was technically possible in that video conferencing format. They would be able to write in the chat. They would be able to ask questions in a written Q&A. They would be able to raise a hand to signal they wanted to share something. They would be able to speak if invited by a host. They would not see each other, nor would I see them. No small group work would be possible. Ok, I could work with that.

This ended up being the most technically restricted and most revelatory online facilitation experience of the past few years for me. I discovered, literally, the meaning of a phrase one of my cherished mentors, William Torbert, uses a lot “listening in the dark”. I found myself listening in the dark to the murmurings of an invisible group, whose energy I almost physically felt. I guessed it through one of the most active and alive chat conversations I’ve seen, through tiny virtual hands raised and people keen to speak in the dark. I ended up facilitating not one, but two reflective activities with this group and essentially doing all I had planned to do when I assumed that the video would be on and break-outs would be possible.

Growing up on the inside is LOOKING AT that which before you were only LOOKING THROUGH.

Before last night’s webinar, I was looking THROUGH all my assumptions about how something we’d decided to call “a webinar” was going to actually (in my mind and planning) be very interactive - more of a “workshop” - but those two words were synonyms in my mind. I was obviously looking through my assumptions the team I was partnering with understood the notion ‘webinar’ in the same loose way I did. In fact, they understood it correctly, and I hadn’t. I also was looking through my assumption they were familiar with my facilitation style (which they weren’t). I was looking through my experience with Zoom and what I assumed a Zoom meeting would be. I was also looking through my belief that more interactive is always better, but never occurred to me to make that belief visible and transparent to the people I was working with. What seemed like a minor communication issue had actually been the result of a dozen or so assumptions I had made and never acknowledged as such.

Then, all of a sudden, within 10 minutes of the event starting, I was forced to LOOK AT all of these assumptions and make a choice about how I wanted to show up in that moment. I was very thankful for my practice of always checking in on my highest intention for anything I get involved in.

Why am I here, really? Who do I want to be right now? What impact do I want to have?

These questions help sift through the muck to get to the essence of what is possible and then make it happen. They are great anchors to bring you back from the pit of fallback into a wiser version of yourself. And then, all of a sudden, you become aware you have choice and options open up that were previously hidden.

This story is about a very small moment. Trivial. But it is often in the small, trivial moments that the real work of growing up on the inside happens.

I am grateful for this small moment, which taught me so much and allowed me to strengthen the bond with a team I’ll be collaborating with more and more, but I’m really now just getting to know (and they me). It gave us the gift of overcoming our first hurdle together and also gave me the chance to realise how many assumptions I am making about simple and complex things in equal measure. It reminded me of how even the smaller assumptions have consequences and how much more I have to learn about making my thinking transparent, communicating better and co-creating with the people I am privileged to work with.

If this story resonates, I’d invite you to notice when in recent days have you caught yourself LOOKING AT something which before you were LOOKING THROUGH? And what changed for you when you did? How might you practice this more consciously and purposefully? And why would it matter?


See original article published by Vertical Development Institute.

Get proven actionable insights delivered to your inbox

Learn what the pros do differently. Receive one email per month with actionable marketing ideas

More Posts