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Coaching: Dealing with subliminal “Theories in Use”

(With acknowledgement to the inspired thinking of Chris Argyris, professor, Harvard Business School)

We don’t necessary live in the same world we speak about; we operate from a psycho-logic, embedded in a theory-in-use, through which we control and predict the consequences of our behaviours; learning to know is different from learning to do; people don’t give up their theory-in-use because they know better.

1. Espoused Theories

It is not uncommon that we are confronted with the fact that it is sometimes easier to give advice than to live it. Or, people who are supposed to have the answers fail to be effective at their challenges they face. All of this refers to the proverbial times when we “don’t walk our talk”. In my experience as management coach and NLP/NS trainer, this is also the challenge of “transferring learning”: to do what is required when it is required.

This enigma, however, start with peoples thinking (their stated “theory”) about events. They would think about an event in a particular way, which, when asked, is what they present verbally. However, when watching real examples of their behaviour, their stated theory (explanation) might not correspond to their observable behaviour.

“When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is his theory-in-use, which may or may not be compatible with his espoused theory; furthermore, the individual may or may not be aware of the incompatibility of the two theories.” (Argyris and Schön, 1981, p.7).

This gap between the espoused theory and theory-in-use becomes significant when the actual behaviour the person exhibits does not lead to desired outcomes. Effective behaviour is at a premium in human lives. “Moreover, we now see that one source of human energy is psychological success with challenging opportunities; thus, effectiveness may be connected with psychological health.

As the concept of human nature became more competence-oriented, it also became more active.” Argyris and Schön, 1981; p.xi)

2. Theory in Use

“When you know what to do in a given situation in order to achieve an intended consequence, you know what the theory-in-use for that situation is. You know the nature of the consequence to be attained, you know the action appropriate in the situation to attain it, and you know the assumptions contained in the theory.” (Argyris and Schön, 1981; p7).

“All such theories of action have the same form: in situation S, if you want to achieve consequence C, do A.. Of course, theories of action do not hold when they are put into such simple form. They depend on a set of stated or unstated assumptions.” (Argyris, 1976; p.5)
“Theories-in-use, however their assumptions may differ, all include assumptions about self, others, the situation, and the connections among action, consequence, and situation.” (Argyris, 1976, p.6).

Clearly, we build two kinds of assumptions into our theories in use: one, about the content and meaning, and secondly, about the cause-effect/influencing relationship that exist amongst the components in our experience of the event.

Firstly, assumptions about the content and meaning of the variables which make up our experience of the event in which we want to achieve C. Some current thinking clearly indicate that one can think of more variables than the ones identified by Argyris.

Bodenhamer and Hall in their latest research (The Matrix Model: a Trainers Manual (@2003), as well as “The Matric Model: 7 Matrices of Neuro-Semantics” by Michael Hall (2002)), demonstrate that we construct meaning about the following 7 variables in our experience: Values, Self, Power and Self-efficacy, Time, Others and the World. How we think about these variables that make up our experiential world, determine how we frame (punctuate or emphasise) our experience. How we frame the content of our experience determines not just the meaning in our experience, but also what is possible in behavioral terms. The assumptions and meaning we hold about the 7 matrices sets the boundary for the possible consequences and range of actions we permit ourselves to consider.

Statements about “I cannot” or “it is not possible for me” or “I am not even prepared to consider it” are not necessarily referring to constraints in the world, but to how I think about me in the context of the 7 matrices. I am my own constraint in how I pay attention and give meaning to these 7 variables. In the same way, there is be an optimal way of framing with the 7 matrices, which are conducive to peak performance and healthy effectiveness. (This is bound to be a next article by M. Hall, or me. In the meantime I suggest “Coaching and Conditions for Excellence” at

Secondly, the perceived relationship between our definition of the situation, the actions we are prepared or programmed to consider, and the 7 matrices, defines for us the “what is possible” withing the theory-in-use. As long as this theory-in-use stay as is, the persons behaviour will stay constant. Unless the theory-in-use changes, the person can only consider the behavioural span or consequences “permitted” by the theory.

“From the subjective view, my theory of action is normative for me; that is, it states what I ought to do if I wish to achieve certain results. It is a theory of control.” (Argyris, 1976, p.9). Not only is it my theory with which I control my world, it is also the theory which “controls” me.

3. Self-Sealing

“The relationship between theory-in-use and action is special. Here, the action not only applies and tests the theory but also shapes the behavioral world the theory is about. We are familiar with this phenomenon in its pejorative connotations, as in the example of the teacher whose belief in the stupidity of his students results in the students' behaving stupidly. But the usual conclusions of such experiments is that one should avoid self-fulfilling prophecies--as if one could. Every theory-in-use is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent."

Every time your theory-in-use works, you have the confirmation for it. Language solidifies meaning, but the consequences of one’s theory-in-use entrenches or embeds the theory.

“Here are two examples. A teacher believes his students are stupid. He communicates his expectations so that the children behave stupidly. He may then "test” his theory that the children will give stupid answers to his questions by asking them questions and eliciting stupid answers. The longer he interacts with the children, the more his theory will be confirmed. A second example involves a manager who believes his subordinates are passive, dependent, and require authoritarian guidance, with the result that his subordinates do behave passively and dependently toward him. He may test his theory by posing challenges for them and eliciting dependent responses. In both cases the assumptions turn out to be true; both theories-in-use are self-fulfilling prophecies because the protagonist cannot discover that his assumptions are mistaken or that his theory as a whole is ineffective. The so-called testing brings the behavioral world more nearly into line with the theory, confirming for all concerned the stupidity of the students and the dependence of the subordinates.” (Argyris, 1976, p.16).

Coaching managers is one place where you will definitely come across the resistence to change which is the result of self-sealing. Coaching managers who have a track record of “success” have the evidence that there theory-in-use is not only working (i.e. gets the desired consequences) but it is a valid way of thinking about the world, me, others, etc.

The fact that a person may be out of step with “current management practises” or achieve their success at the cost of “current values about the workforce”, is not enough reason for them to change their theory-in-use.

4. Learning to Do and Learning to Know

It can be argued that information in itself is the poorest change-agent when it comes to behavioural change. Knowing is not enough reason to do. Knowing about does not imply competence in making the appropriate behavioural and experiential distinctions required for effective behaviour.

Argyris, after many years of research of doing “action learning” (i.e. his preferred method to change theory-in-use; see the next article on “double loop learning” or Argyris’ own article by that name in the Harvard Business Review, or “Empowerment” in the May-June 1998 edition) came to the following conclusion:

“When the requirement was added that people use and produce these concepts in concrete actions in their everyday life, under conditions ranging from zero through moderate stress, we assumed that, once the participants learned and internalized new concepts, they would "naturally" be used and built on by them; thus they could be produced in real life. Implicit in this assumption was another-namely, that there was a continuous relationship between discovery, the formulation of new concepts, and the production of these in real life.

We learned that this was not the case. What people define and accept as valid discovery and as relevant conceptual learning varies dramatically if they know that the objective educational experience is conceptual learning, rather than if the objective includes the performance of the concepts to be learned. (Argyris 1976, p.IX).

“We believe that theories of action whose purpose is primarily to discover problems may be quite different from those whose purpose combines discovery of problems with the invention and production of solutions.” Argyris, 1978, p.5). “... people design and solve problems differently if they know they will end their learning with understanding than if they know that they will be asked to use their understanding to make events come about.” (Argyris, 1976, p.xii).
This is another way of stressing the importance of outcome-based interventions, where the person being coached is mutually responsible for defining coaching outcomes. (See “Training Effectiveness using NLP” and “Practical Mentoring” at


When people’s behaviour differs from what they say they are operating from a particular theory-in-use. This theory-in-use is their way of understanding the variables and controlling the consequences of their behaviour on specific events. A theory-in-use have a particular psycho-logic about “doing-to-get”.
Change during the coaching-process is working, directly or indirectly, with the persons’ theory-in-use. Because of the self-fulfilling nature of theory-in-use all behavioural evidence is translated into validation of the theory, called “self-sealing”.

Since the early 70's (based on extensive research by Argyris) it has been made clear that different strategies are required for “getting to know” and “doing”. It would enhance coaching effectiveness to consider different strategies for these different outcomes.


Argyris, Chris (1976) Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, Wiley Series In Behavior.
Argyris, Chris and Schön, Donald (1978): Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
(1981): Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers
Bodenhamer, Bobby and Hall, L Michael (2003): The Trainers Manual: The Matrix Model.
Hall, L Michael (2002) The Matrix Model: the 7 Matrices of Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Semantic Publications.