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The Subject/Object Interview

2011 June 20

The Subject/Object Interview (SOI) is an interview technique used to explore a person’s development according to Robert Kegan’s Constructive-Developmental Theory.  As I learned from Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin, one way to begin the interview with someone is by saying, “For the next hour or so, I’m going to do my best to see the world through your eyes.”

The person is then given a list of topics or “prompts” such as:

•  Success/Delight
•  Angry
•  Torn
•  Sad
•  Made a Stand/Important to You

The participant is then asked to make a list of a few recent situations where they have experienced the above topics in a particularly memorable way. For example, for “Angry”, they might choose the time their best friend humiliated them in front of someone they had been trying to impress.  For “Torn”, they might recall how they had been struggling to decide between two job offers: their “dream job” that happened to be in another part of the country versus a less appealing job that was nearby friends and family.

Having generated a list of several such situations, the interviewee is then asked to choose one that they would most like to talk about and describe what happened.  As the participant is telling their story, the interviewer is doing two things.  First, they are acting as an empathic active listener, reflecting back to the participant what they’ve heard.  Second, they are listening not just to the facts of the story but to how the participant experienced what happened.  By asking a series of dialogic questions to explore the “why” behind the participant’s thinking, the interviewer can begin to describe the “subject/object balance” from which the interviewee is making meaning.

This process is repeated for a few additional situations from the participant’s list. The interview portion of this process takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-quarter.

Following the interview, the interviewer scores the interview.  Scoring also takes about an hour.

Following scoring, if desired, the interviewer can debrief the participant on their experience of the interview.  This can include guiding the participant through exploring any moments of self-discovery that may have occurred during the course of the interview, as well as providing a qualitative description of the interviewee’s meaning-making according to Kegan’s theory.  A numeric score can also be provided but will typically be less meaningful to the average participant depending on their familiarity with Constructive-Developmental Theory.  In addition, it is critical to emphasize that an SOI score is a score of the interview not the person. If the person were to take the interview again and talk about different topics, it is possible that the resulting score might be somewhat different. Thoroughly debriefing an SOI can take an hour or more.


So What’s It Really Like?

The overwhelming majority of individuals who have taken a Subject/Object Interview report having a deeply profound and meaningful experience.  As the interview is designed to ask a person questions about their own thinking that they have never been asked before, it is common for participants to gain significant new personal insights.  A key feature of the SOI is that it’s contents is wholly the lived experience of the interviewee. Hence, there is no way to “fail” an SOI.

The following quotations from individuals who have taken SOIs give a sense of what the experience was like for them:

“I gained an understanding…that there was an “explanation” or “reasoning” to the way that I was operating in the world. The process can be very revelatory and may provide a framework to understand how you are approaching the world…. One of the things about SOI is that as a client I got totally into talking all about myself and I almost forgot that you as a human being on the other side might be thinking/feeling/calculating something as a result of what I have said.” — Diane, 43, executive coach and mother of three

“Taking the Subject-Object Interview with Peter was a fun and illuminating process. Even weeks after the experience, I remember the insight I gained. His questions led me to discover that the difficulties I was having in a leadership role were not due to incompetence (as I had feared), but rather related to how much I cared about the work I was doing. I have since been able to function much more effectively in this leadership role. Further, Peter’s post-interview analysis…strengthened my confidence in my developmental path.” — Elise, 30, life coach

“Looking back on the interview, I am impressed with the way [you were] able to get me to share thoughts that would accurately reveal the level of mental complexity at which I normally function, without thinking about the issue of mental complexity itself. The result was a conversation that both provided an outlet for unexpressed feelings and opened a new path toward self-discovery. For all of these reasons, I would highly recommend friends or family to take an SOI…(in fact, I already have).” — Robert, 39, graduate student

“Why it was so fun: As I ‘re-write’ my story of me, every chance I get to bring together the various parts and tell the story and interact with someone about it, I’m re-energized and re-affirmed.” — Lissa, 30, graduate student

“a free-ranging, comfortable and exploratory conversation” — Vicki, 60, executive coach

“I found the SOI experience allowed me to think of very personal issues in different ways. As a result I feel more effective and comfortable in my day-to-day life. After two weeks of the interview I can approach certain situations with more ease and can control them. I would recommend this experience to friends and family simply because it gives us a small push towards becoming the person we would like to be.” — Rafael, 31, architect


It is worth noting that SOI interviewers typically report that the execution and debrief of interviews is a deeply moving experience for them, as well, regardless of who they have interviewed.  There is beauty in everyone’s mind if we take the time to see them deeply enough. The following quotation resonates with my own experience with SOI’s:

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.” – Marcel Proust


Following an interview, individuals may elect to use the results of the interview to guide further personal development or coaching, or by taking the SOI again at some point in the future.



Where to Go from Here

For an overview of the theory underlying the SOI, go here.

If you are interested in learning about applying this theory to personal development or in organizations, see this post on the Immunity to Change™ process.

For additional resources on adult development, click here.



2 Responses Leave One →
  1. Nick permalink
    June 21, 2011

    Hi Peter, thanks for that description. I never knew what happened in an interview session and you have laid it out clearly. thanks for taking the time……..

  2. Darren Stevens permalink
    July 8, 2014

    Hi Peter.
    I am currently working on progressing the ideas of the SOI and levels of adult development (as some things are missing) and think I have got something worth looking at. It needs validation still so I am discussing this with some influential people this week. If you are interested in my ideas (albeit currently blindly) then get in touch and I’ll happily demonstrate the process for you to either take apart or get behind. Many thanks.

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