How to See Beyond Your Structure of Interpretation
By Joy Reichart, Guest Contributor
I recently spoke to someone who is curious about training to be an Integral Coach. Integral Coaching is a developmental methodology that supports clients in becoming self-generating and self-correcting, moving through all areas of life with greater capacity, spaciousness, and sense of possibility.
This person’s interest stems from a pattern he’s noticed in his life—namely, breakdowns in leadership in the organizations he’s been a part of. He intends to use his training to explore why this keeps coming up in his life and learn skills to be of service to teams and organizations experiencing these challenges.
I was struck by how he framed his query: leading with curiosity about the pattern that is showing up in his life. Not “the world is wrong, this industry is broken, and I must equip myself with new tools so I can go in and fix it.” On the contrary, the way he put it was very much inwardly focused. “Why do I keep finding myself in this situation? What is it calling on me to notice, and to grow in myself? From there, how might I be of service in this area?”
This wise person had called to get a better sense of how Integral Coach training works but actually, in describing what he was in the middle of, he explained it very well. Without necessarily knowing it, here’s what he was pointing to.
Structure of Interpretation
Every human being walks through the world in a kind of “bubble” that we in Integral Coaching call a Structure of Interpretation, or SOI. The bubble comprises our earliest notions of acceptable behavior as demonstrated by our caregivers (be helpful, be quiet, be brave, be funny, be…). These notions get augmented and take on new dimensions when we enter the social world. Once we are living as autonomous adults, all of this information is running robustly on autopilot, coloring everything we see. All of this is unconscious.
Of course, everyone’s SOI is completely unique. I remember going on a hike with my partner and his colleagues a few years ago. One person kept darting out ahead of us, jogging up inclines to make sure he was getting the maximum physical benefit of the activity. Another consistently fell behind to study a leaf, wonder at what sort of creature dug that hole, or photograph the scenery. Concerned about the lack of shade on the trail, another person kept offering everyone sunscreen and making sure the dog had water. Several others were absorbed in conversation about their shared interests, less aware of the surroundings and losing track of how far we’d gone. When I suggested we head back to our house for brunch, someone remarked what a neat idea that we’d end ‘so soon’ (we’d been out well over an hour) and how they hadn’t thought about food. I, in turn, was baffled that anyone would have been thinking about anything but the snacks (isn’t that the point of any gathering?). As we collected up the stragglers and made our way back to the trailhead, I was struck by how many different experiences were happening on the same hike.
Hopefully, this example illustrates how our attention is drawn automatically to certain things, at how this dictates the unique experiences we have.
These responses are so ingrained that it can be revolutionary to shift from “why are people like this/why is the world this way?” to “Why am I noticing this everywhere?” Revolutionary—and necessary.
Why is it important to notice what I notice?
For one thing, when we become aware that our attention is automatically drawn in a certain direction, we can be more intentional about where we put it. This is mindfulness in action: where are my thoughts programmed to go, and can I gently redirect them to a place of greater possibility, openness, and compassion? When we move beyond our SOI-born perceptions and judgments, we become more sensitive and attuned to what is really happening in a given moment. This is a vital element of learning to be present with our clients.
You also may have noticed that unconscious patterns will keep repeating themselves until they are disrupted somehow. For example, maybe every job has you working for the same kind of boss, or romantic relationships keep ending for the same reason. Stuff seems to happen “to” us repeatedly, and until we get to the root of what that’s about. It will go on until it’s disrupted.
How do we disrupt unconscious patterns? By making them conscious. Specifically, by paying attention to what we consistently notice or experience—particularly the bothersome stuff. These are signposts indicating something beneath the surface that wants our attention so it can be transformed. The more we can be aware of what we’re aware of, the less power our automatic responses will have.
Circling back to our friend who wants to support leadership teams, part of him knows that he won’t be effective in this until he can see what this repeated phenomenon is pointing to in him. Otherwise, his attempts to ‘help’ or ‘fix’ the circumstance will come from the same recurring pattern. He has to expand his SOI to include greater possibilities than those he is aware of right now. This will take lots of practice, and lots of support.
How Integral Coaches work with Structure of Interpretation
One of the central tasks as Integral Coaches is to invite our clients out of their SOI. We approach this in a number of ways. One example is the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing tool and spiritual model, which elucidates our automatic ways of moving through the world (e.g., challenging, helping, performing, perfectionism, overthinking, etc.) and invites us to live from a bigger, truer place.
Another tool we employ with ourselves and our clients is the practice self-observation: taking up a rigorous daily study of a particular phenomenon in our lives and, like any good scientist, taking notes so that we can begin to string together patterns.
And of course, there is sitting meditation: one of the most accessible and useful tools we have to observe the patterns of the mind, and a practice every student is asked to take up daily.
This is what it is to build the body of an Integral Coach—constantly opening to what we might not be seeing so that we can help others do the same. It is very likely that the patterns most deeply entrenched in us point to what the world most needs from us. Addressing these patterns in ourselves, bringing them out into the light so they can live and breathe, could be the starting point on the path to our life’s calling.
Joy Reichart is an Integral Coach and the Creative Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco. She is a longtime student of Aikido, a martial art about shifting our automatic responses to unwelcome energy and harmonizing with life. She writes about Aikido, coaching and other topics at beginnerdom.com.
A version of this article was posted on January 2020.