Leadership Coaching as Transformative Learning: How Their Core Facets, Processes, & Paradigms Align

By Andy Hughes

How leaders learn is an essential and expensive question asked today by organizations across the world. Organizations are facing consistent transformational, dynamic and complex challenges which require effective leadership more so than ever (DeRue & Myers, 2014). In 2019, firms spent approximately $370.3 billion on training (Training Industry, 2020), and Training Industry (2020), Bersin (2019) and Gurdjian et al. (2014) estimate that between $3.4 and $14 billion is spent annually on leadership development by U.S. companies alone. Further, this investment is only expected to increase in the near future (Training Industry, 2019; Prokopeak, 2018; Gurdjian et al., 2014).

However, the study of leadership development is relatively nascent compared to its practice (DuRue & Myers, 2014). One method of leadership development which is has grown exponentially over the past two decades (Burt & Talati, 2017) and is the most common leadership training topic (Training Industry, 2020) is leadership coaching. Unfortunately, the research on coaching also lags behind it practice (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018). Further, theoretical underpinnings of the coaching field are dominated by paradigms from psychology (Gray, 2006) and few models consider adult learning theory widely in their approach (except Cox et al, 2014).

Transformative learning theory, widely attributed to American sociologist and adult education teacher Jack Mezirow (Taylor, 2008; Levine, 2014) involves several key interactional facets and processes which may be helpful for both the understanding and practice of leadership coaching. Transformative learning theory has emerged as the “dominant adult learning philosophy” (Taylor, 2008, p.12) in the field of adult learning over the last forty years (Merriam & Bierema, 2014) and could provide a firm theoretical basis for the field of leadership coaching.

This article proposes that engaging the core ideas of transformative learning theory with the exploration of coaching will enrich and guide both scholars and practitioner’s leadership development work. I first review the past and current literature on transformative learning to account for what we know about the theory. I then examine the core facets and processes of the theory providing a visual depiction of each element. I conclude by analyzing the similarities and differences between these ideas and current leadership coaching techniques.

Transformative Learning Theory

Around the same time sociologist Jack Mezirow formulated his ideas about adult education beginning in the late 1970s, a larger women’s rights movement was unfolding in America. In addition to significant milestones such as the passing of Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1972, a number of re-entry programs were developed by community colleges specifically for women education (Mezirow, 1975); it was Mezirow’s grounded theory study of women’s experiences in these programs which led to the articulation of transformative learning.

Theory Defined

Ultimately, transformative learning develops what Mezirow calls “autonomous thinking.” Mezirow (1997a) argues that each of us have a frame of reference or world view to which we orient our understanding of the world. Transformative learning is the process of effecting change in this frame of reference. Mezirow (1997a) states that our worldview consists of both cognitive and emotional components and that only through critical reflection and discourse can one’s frame of reference change. Mezirow (1997a) claims that “thinking as an autonomous and responsible agent is essential for full citizenship in democracy and for moral decision making in situations of rapid change” (p. 7).  To be an autonomous thinker then is to “become critically aware of the cultural and psychological assumptions that have influenced the way we see ourselves and our relationships and the way we pattern our lives” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 101).   

The “formative learning” (Mezirow, 1991a, p. 3) a child experiences through education and socialization does not automatically result in what Mezirow (1978) first coined “perspective transformation” (p. 100). Our world views are learned and constructed from our interaction with the culture around us to help us understand ourselves, our roles, and our relationships. In many respects, we may not even be aware of our world views. Nevertheless, we navigate our lives based on the way we see the world, adjusting ourselves and our interactions to reinforce our expectations and perspectives (Mezirow, 1991a). Mezirow (1981) argues that adult learning presents the opportunity to develop autonomous thinking because “it is only in late adolescence and in adulthood that a person can come to recognize being caught in his/her own history and reliving it” (p. 11).  How we come to recognize that trap and transform the way we see the world is what Mezirow’s learning theory seeks to explain.

With more than thirty years of explanations, critiques, and adaptations, transformative learning has evolved continuously (see Table B.1 in Appendix B). For the purposes of this article, I use the following description: Transformative learning “involves the psycho-cultural process of making meaning, the nature of meaning structures and how they are transformed through reflection, rational discourse, and emancipatory action” (Mezirow, 1995, p. 39). This description contains the core process (meaning-making), the most essential facet (meaning structures), and three processes which are active facilitators of transformation (reflection, discourse, and action). I now provide a brief overview of the processes inherent in transformative learning theory.

Table 1. Four Different Definitions of Transformative Learning by Mezirow

Mezirow (1978, p. 101)Transformative learning is the process by which we “become critically aware of the cultural and psychological assumptions that have influenced the way we see ourselves and our relationships and the way we pattern our lives.”
Mezirow (1991, p. viii)  The process by which “the frames of reference through which we view and interpret our experience (meaning perspectives) are changed or transformed.”
Mezirow (2003, p. 58)Transformative learning is “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change.”
Mezirow (2009, p. 93)Transformative learning is “a metacognitive epistemology of evidential (instrumental) and dialogical (communicative) reasoning.”



There are six processes which comprise Mezirow’s transformative learning: 1) meaning-making, 2) reflection, 3) intentional construal, 4) discourse, 5) perspective transformation, and 6) action. I interpret these processes not in a purely sequential and linear fashion. Research suggests the theory does not unfold in a step-by-step fashion (Taylor, 2000). Instead, I present a stacked Venn diagram (see Figure 1) to show an ordering of processes in an effort to make it easier for the reader to understand this complex theory. The overarching process I show in the diagram is adult learning since it encompasses all processes. I understand meaning-making as a larger process of transformative learning, and I see intentional construal and perspective transformation as examples of making-meaning. I differentiate meaning-making, intentional construal, and perspective transformation processes from reflection, discourse, action because I interpret the latter three processes as facilitators of a transformation. I also argue that they help distinguish transformative learning from other meaning-making and learning processes.

Figure 1

Six Processes Relevant to Transformative Learning

The primary process central to Mezirow’s (1991a, 1995, 2000) learning theory is meaning-making. In fact, he argues it is a “defining condition of being human” (Mezirow, 2000, p.3) and what enables learning (the meta-process) to occur (Mezirow, 1995). “To make meaning is to construe an experience” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 4) through symbol models and language. This interpretive process occurs using a meaning structure comprised of psycho-cultural assumptions developed from previous experience (Mezirow, 1995).  Each new event in a learning journey is interpreted through this lens, and only when this structure (also known as a frame of reference or a world view) becomes insufficient in understanding the event, does the learner engage in the next important process: reflection.

Mezirow (1994) defines reflection as “attending to the grounds (justification) for one’s beliefs” (p.223). He articulates three types of reflection: 1) content, 2) process, and 3) premise (Mezirow, 1995). Premise reflection is a higher order process because it requires a learner to question the assumptions beneath their meaning structures, (the why) in addition to analyzing the content (the what) and the process (the how). It is premise reflection, also called “critical reflection” (Mezirow, 1995, p.44), which leads to the type of interpretation “required to transform our meaning schemes and perspectives” (p.44). Mezirow calls this intentional construal.

Intentional construal is one of three interpretive processes described by Mezirow (1995); the other two types are presentational and propositional construal. While all three categories are interactive and necessary ways of meaning-making, propositional and presentation are tacit in nature (Mezirow, 1995). These two processes do not require reflective practice which is what differentiates them from intentional construal (Mezirow, 1995). Further, they use different types of communication strategies. For example, propositional construal involves language to make meaning while presentational construal includes more physical objects which we see, hear, touch, smell, and emote (Mezirow, 1995). Intentional construal engages reflective thinking and is used “when we are deliberately attempting to pose or solve a problem, describe or explain” (Mezirow, 1995, p. 41). This type of meaning-making can occur internally through personal reflection or in the process of one-on-one or group communication; Mezirow (2003) terms this latter form of process “discourse” (p.59).

New beginnings of a learner’s frame of reference requires testing and validation. Discourse, which Mezirow (1995) describes as “a special form of dialogue” (p. 53), is an interactive process which permits the verification of new assumptions and beliefs. Further, discourse is inherently rational. Built on logical assumptions and reliant on imperative conditions (as outlined in Table C.1 in Appendix C), discourse helps the learner interactively reflect with others while seeking the collective best judgement for that moment in time (Mezirow, 1995 & 2003). It is via the process of discourse that meaning structures are fundamentally transformed and solidified. I now describe the intricacies of perspective transformation which encompasses several of the previously described processes.

Mezirow (1978) describes perspective transformation as the process in which meaning structures are changed. He argues that it is the central process of adult development. In his most robust explanation of his theory, Mezirow (1991a) outlines ten phases of meaning to explain the progression: 1) a disorienting dilemma, 2) self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame, 3) a critical assessment of assumptions, 4) recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared, 5) exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions, 6) planning a course of action, 7) acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans, 8) provisional trying of new roles, 9) building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships, and 10) a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

A disorienting dilemma is responsible for evoking intentional construal and reflection, and therefore an important first phase of the process. Phases two and three are achieved through self-reflection and phases four and five are performed through discourse. Phases six, seven, eight, and ten are actions, and phase nine involves all three processes of reflection, discourse, and action. Despite listing ten phases, Mezirow (1991a) argues that the process “does not follow clearly defined steps or stages” (p. 152). Instead, the process entails clarifications of meaning (Mezirow, 1991a). The result of a transformation is a “more inclusive, differentiated, permeable, and integrated perspective” (Mezirow, 1991a, p. 153). He suggests that this is the natural direction of development in adulthood and that a transformation is permanent once it occurs (Mezirow, 1991a). There are two general ways a perspective transformation can occur: epochal or cumulatively. Singular major life events result in more significant transformations whereas less momentous transformations transpire sporadically over time (Mezirow, 1991a). The degree of the transformation also depends on the impact of the disorienting dilemma.

The sixth process of transformative learning theory on which I comment is action. Mezirow (1978) claims that perspective transformation does not always lead to a specific action, but does arrive at the choice to act. He suggests that deciding is an action of transformative learning even if one decides not to change behavior (Mezirow, 1992). Mezirow (1992) argues the process of transformative learning is not complete until behavioral change is possible. Again, this does not imply a physical act as the result of perspective transformation but merely the potential for a similar or different line of action. Mezirow (1991a) provides a useful figure to show the process of reflective action (p. 109). He includes several sub-processes: scanning, propositional construal, reflection imaginative insight, and interpretation (Mezirow, 1991a). These all lead to action based on a change in either a meaning scheme or meaning perceptive. Mezirow (1994) acknowledges that “reflective action often involves overcoming situational, knowledge, and emotional constraints” (p. 226). He suggests that action requires the help of others to sustain it (Mezirow, 1978). Additionally, the role of culture and situations determine the type and level of action by the learner (Mezirow, 1994). Scholars argue Mezirow failed to adequately address the process of social action in his writings (Collard & Law, 1989). In several clarifications, Mezirow (1994) states that transformative learning can involve social action but may not result in collective political action. He affirms that there is a nonlinear relationship between his theory and social action, and adds that the primary process of perspectivetransformation is the reframing of meaning perspectives (Mezirow, 1994) at the individual level. I now review the relevant facets of transformative learning in my next section.


Constructing this complex approach to adult education requires extensive explanation of concepts relevant to knowledge, communication, problem-solving, meaning, and learning. From imagination to logic, Mezirow comments on a myriad of facets which he sees as connected to learning. For this article, I focus on what I interpret as key features of transformative learning necessary for understanding the theory and those related to leadership coaching. I define and describe six facets which I interpret as essential components to the internal dimensions of transformation. I also provide explanations of three important external facets; these are factors which occur independently of the adult learner but shape the transformation process nonetheless. Table 2 provides definitions for all nine facets I interpret in this analysis.

Table 2. Definitions of Internal and External Transformative Learning Facets

FacetDefinition and description
Meaning structureMezirow eventually changed this term to frame of reference. “Frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences. They selectively shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5).
Meaning perspective  Mezirow eventually changes this term to habits of mind. This is a “structure of cultural assumptions within which new experience is assimilated to — and transformed by — one’s past experience. It is a personal paradigm for understanding ourselves and our relationships” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 101). 
Meaning schemeMezirow eventually changed this term to point of view. This is “the constellation of concept, belief, judgment, and feeling which shape a particular interpretation” and they are “specific manifestations of our meaning perspectives” (Mezirow, 1994, p.223).   
Self-conceptInherent in meaning perspectives, a self-concept is how one sees “one’s self and one’s roles and relationships in a consistent, coherent way, a way which will dictate action priorities” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 105).
Psycho-cultural assumptionsPremises “reflective of economic, political, social, religious, occupational or educational systems” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 104) on which “interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 7).
RationalityRationality “means validity testing by reasoning – using reasons and weighing evidence and supporting arguments – rather than by appealing to authority, tradition, or brute force” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 67).
Culture“Culture facilitates or inhibits movement toward maturity by dictating the tempo of change and by providing or denying the opportunity for people to take the meaning perspectives of others” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 106).
EmancipationEmancipation or freedom “from libidinal, linguistic, epistemic, institutional, or environmental forces that limit our options and our rational control over our lives but have been taken for granted or see as beyond human control” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 87).
Role of educator  The role of an educator is to facilitate “education that fosters critically reflective thought, imaginative problem posing, and discourse is learner-centered, participatory, and interactive, and it involves group deliberation and group problem solving” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 10).

One of the central facets of the meaning-making process are meaning structures (facet #1). These frames of references which contain “cognitive, conative, and emotional components” (Mezirow, 1997a, p. 5) are comprised of the psycho-cultural assumptions (another key facet) one learns through socialization. The way a learner sees themselves, their role, and their relationships is reflective of and informed by the learner’s meaning structures. Mezirow (1991a; 1997) suggests there are two types of meaning structures: 1) meaning perspectives (facet #2) or habits of mind, and 2) meaning schemes (facet #3) or points of view. In Mezirow’s (1978; 1991a) definition of transformative learning, both meaning perspectives and meaning schemes can be transformed. However, Mezirow (1991a) states a transformation is more profound and uncommon at the perspective level. Mezirow (1997a) describes the gradation of perspective transformation in detail by differentiating between four types of learning: 1) elaborating on a point of view, 2) establishing a new point of view, 3) transforming a point of view, or 4) transforming a habit of mind. It is the fourth type of learning in which a meaning perspective is transformed and in which Mezirow’s theory is most interested.

Transformative learning also involves two types of reframing on meaning perspectives: “objective (often task-oriented) or subjective (often self-reflective)” (Dirkx, Mezirow, & Cranton, 2006, p.125).  Self-reflective transformations are also generally more significant (Mezirow, 1997a). I argue that the self-concept (facet#4) is important in transformation. Mezirow does not provide enough commentary on the role of self-concept or “as a way of being” (Dirkx, 1998, p. 11) in perspective transformation but does view it as a part of adult learning: “Conceptualizing one’s self concept in the process of perspective taking is developmentally a function of maturity” (Mezirow, 1978, p. 105). When Mezirow (1978) describes the necessary critical assessment of ourselves in perspective transformation, he explains how challenging it is to evolve our self-concept when it has been forged based on psycho-cultural assumptions tied our societal roles.

The fifth facet I examine is the psycho-cultural assumptions a learner holds which make up a meaning perspective. Mezirow (1997a) suggests there are six factors or types of codes which shape meaning perspectives: cultural, social, educational, economic, political, or psychological. These “sets of codes” (p. 6) are summative of the psycho-cultural assumptions on which meaning perspectives are built (Mezirow, 1997a). In his seminal theoretical text, Mezirow (1991a) provides a deep analysis of three of these factors which he originally terms epistemic, sociolinguistic, and psychological. These factors powerfully shape a learner’s thought, feeling, and will potentially distorting our understanding of ourselves and the world (Mezirow, 1991a), since they inform the assumptions upon which our meaning perspectives are created (Mezirow, 1991a). For example, sociolinguistic (societal and language-based assumptions) and psychological (assumptions about self formed from childhood and parents) premise distortions can affect the ability of adult learners to understand role expectations and process emotions, respectively (Mezirow, 1991a).

The last internal facet (#6) I interpret from Mezirow’s theory is rationality. Drawing from Habermas’ ideas, Mezirow (1991a) states that rationality “means validity testing by reasoning – using reasons and weighing evidence and supporting arguments – rather than by appealing to authority, tradition, or brute force” (Mezirow, 1991a, p. 67). I interpret this component of transformative learning – as it occurs in the process of discourse – as the challenging but necessary heavy-lifting an adult learner endures to complete and solidify a perspective transformation. It is through rationality that an adult learner begins to see the distance between an outdated worldview and a new meaning perspective; the habit of mind becomes more functional to the problem at hand (Mezirow, 1978 & 1991a). Although Mezirow received criticism for ignoring the contextual influences on rationality (Clark & Wilson, 1991), he later clarified his beliefs which relate to two of the three external facets I describe in the next section: culture (#7) and emancipation (Mezirow, 1991b).

When responding to Clark & Wilson’s (1991) critique, Mezirow (1991b) argues that rationality is a “superordinate value” (p.190) in most cultures because common claims of what is true in a culture are more logical, consistent, supported by reasons, justified by criteria, and more comprehensible through analysis. In this claim, Mezirow (1991b) ties rationality with cultural context in the learning process. He recognizes the role culture has on an individual, learning and rationality stating that it dictates what practices are appropriate and what values are important in judging knowledge (Mezirow, 1991b). Therefore, I interpret that rationality interacts with the cultural context within in which a learner engages through the process of discourse. The learner’s assumptions are assessed and validated on the “criteria of inclusivity, discrimination, integration of experiences, and permeability of perspective” (Mezirow, 1991a, p. 191). Mezirow (1978) concedes that pluralistic societies are more likely to permit perspective transformation and admits that mass communication in a culture reinforces popular meaning perspectives which can limit learning (Mezirow, 1978). That is why another important facet of his theory must be included in this analysis: emancipation (#8). 

Mezirow (1991a) defines this component as freedom “from libidinal, linguistic, epistemic, institutional, or environmental forces that limit our options and our rational control over our lives but have been taken for granted or see as beyond human control” (p. 87). Mezirow (1991b) comments that rationality is “continually suppressed by powerful forces like the money economy, bureaucracy, and institutionalized ideologies which tend to objectify human beings and to operate as self-directed systems without the guidance of rational discourse” (p. 190). Emancipation from these societal restraints is an important goal of perspective transformation and adult learning.

The final noteworthy element of Mezirow’s theory I categorize as an external facet is the role of the educator (#9). In much of his writings, Mezirow seeks to provide pragmatic guidance to adult educators interested in transformative learning. Beyond his ideas, Mezirow provides goals for andragogy (1981), ideal conditions for discourse, ethical considerations (1991), and several directions for developing autonomous thinkers (1997a). In general, Mezirow (1997a) suggests adult educators are facilitators. Differing from the role of childhood teacher, Mezirow (1997a) argues adult educators are “provocateurs” (p. 11) rather than authority figures, conscious of the needs and development level of the learner, and promote self-reflection and discourse. Since I have explored Mezirow’s theory in detail, I now complete the first objective of this paper by connecting the framework of transformative learning to coaching.

Thirty Years of Transformative Learning Theory and Research

Ideas about transformative learning have expanded and diverged greatly since Mezirow’s original writings. Mezirow admitted his theory was a work in progress (Mezirow, 1996) and consistently welcomed critique (Mezirow, 1992 &1994; Dirkx et al., 2006). Kitchenam (2008) provides a comprehensive analysis of how Mezirow’s own thinking has evolved over several decades. Much of the debate is in reaction to criticism based on Mezirow’s in attention to social change (Collard & Law, 1989), power (Hart, 1990), cultural context (M. C. Clark & Wilson, 1991), and the soul (Dirkx, 1997). In 2006, Cranton facilitated a written exchange between two leading scholars at the time, Mezirow and Dirkx, seeking to provide continuity among them (Dirkx et al., 2006). A principal scholar of transformative learning herself (see Cranston 2006 & 2016), Cranston (2016) eventually proposed an integrated approach to the theory to avoid “further fragmentation” (Cranton, 2016, p. 31).

Other scholars have attempted to frame the debate on transformative theory. For example, Gunnlaugson (2008) differentiates Mezirow’s writings from more recent scholars using the terms “first-wave” and “second-wave” (p. 124) respectively. He attempts to create a meta-framework through which theory development can combine the best dimensions from both ‘waves’ of theoretical advancements to create a subfield of transformative learning (Gunnlaugson, 2008). Hoggan (2016) critiques the ubiquitous nature of transformative learning and seeks to create a metatheory for the field as well. The author presents a typology of outcomes, definitive criteria of transformative learning and clear parameters of the process to guide future scholarship (Hoggan, 2016). But not all scholars agree there should be a uniform approach to this philosophy of adult education. Taylor (2008) advocates for “alternative conceptions” (p. 7) in seven views: 1) psycho-analytical, 2) psycho-developmental, 3) social-emancipatory, 4) neurobiological, 5) cultural-spiritual, 6) race-centric, and 7) planetary. Beyond this categorization, Taylor’s greatest contributions to the field has been multiple reviews of the empirical research; I now review the empirical literature citing Taylor, Cranston and others.

Taylor (1998; 2007) and Taylor and Snyder (2012) showcase the span of transforming learning research over three decades in their review of the literature. In his first survey of the research, Taylor (1998) reviewed 40 unpublished dissertations stating that exploration of transformative learning was still in its beginnings. Another adult educator Kathleen Taylor (2000) outlined eight themes from research published before 2000 emphasizing Taylor’s (2008) findings. These included the lack of clarity in theory development, the importance of disorienting dilemmas and reflection in the process, and the need to further explore how frames of reference change and the influence of culture on learning.

Almost ten years from his original review, Taylor (2007) found 41 published journal articles which revealed:

…less research about the possibility and process of transformative learning occurring in a particular context or result of a particular life event, and more research about the nature of a learning experience and how it informs our understanding of transformative learning. (p. 176).

He also positively noted the increased interest in the theory outside of the U.S., despite the fact most studies failed to critically evaluate the theory (Taylor, 2007). Taylor and Snyder’s (2012) found more interdisciplinary approaches and advanced methodology used in transformative learning studies. For example, they found methods such as action research, narrative inquiry, autoethnography, case studies, and even mixed-methods studies. In their unforgiving critique of the literature, Taylor & Cranton (2013) identify and examine five issues in an effort to spur future research: 1) a lack of definitions of the experience, 2) minimal examination of empathy, 3) a gap in understanding a learner’s desire to change, 4) the expected positive orientation and outcomes of transformative learning, and 5) methodological issues. Taylor & Cranton (2013) and Cranton (2016) suggest that transformative learning, although still very much grounded in the idea of Mezirow, is still very much a theory in progress. I now provide an overview of the interconnectedness between the theory of transformative learning and the practice of leadership coaching.

Transformative Learning and Coaching

In Gray’s (2006) comprehensive argument for the use transformative learning as an theoretical foundation for coaching, he irreverently substitutes the word coaching for education one of Mezirow’s (1994, p. 226) quotes: “Education [coaching] for competence involves cultivating the learner’s [coachee’s] ability to negotiate meanings and purposes instead of passively accepting the social realities defined by others” (Gray, 2006, p. 489). Suggesting the traditional human psychology approach is insufficient to ground the theoretical and practical foundations of coaching, Gray (2006) makes a compelling case for the use of Mezirow’s adult learning theory in the field coaching. I aim to further Gray’s (2006) argument in this section by first providing background on the shared philosophical and operational foundations of transformative learning and coaching. I then provide a detailed analysis of similar key processes and facets of Mezirow’s theory and coaching practices. Finally, an argument is made for the use of transformative learning theory as part of the theoretical framework in my dissertation study.

Shared Paradigms and Purposes

Gray (2006) is not the only scholar to connect transformative learning theory to coaching. Fisher-Yoshida (2009) narrates a case study analysis from her experience as a coach in which she argues coaching can help a client make sense of workplace disorienting dilemmas, promote self-awareness, adjust expectations, and challenge unseen assumptions. The conflict-management scholar explains how she used specific tools to provoke critical reflection and bring awareness to patterns of thinking and unassessed beliefs (Fisher-Yoshida, 2009). Coaching scholar Cox (2015) also articulates the synergies between transformative learning theory and coaching. Cox (2015) extends her previous ideas on andragogy and coaching (Cox, 2013) by presenting how Mezirow’s theory provides a more complete explanation of coaching processes. For example, Cox (2015) applies Mezirow’s (1991a) ten phases of meaning to coach behaviors, highlights the three premises of reflection, and compares the role of an adult educator to a coach. Perhaps the greatest parallel between perspective transformations and coaching made by Cox (2015) is the shared constructivist paradigmatic assumptions. I agree with Fisher-Yoshida, (2009) and Cox’s (2015) philosophy that coaching is a meaning-making process in which the client (or learner) explores interactions between the self, the coach, relevant relationships, and their organization.

Another rationale for why Mezirow’s (1991a) framework is germane to coaching is because of its focus on the development of the individual learner. Coaching is “…a developmentally-focused, helping relationship with the purpose of facilitating heightened learning, change, and/or improvement at the individual level” (Taylor, Passarelli, & Van Oosten, 2019, p. 2). Using self-determination theory and intentional change theory, Taylor et al (2019) propose “an integrative conceptual model to define what constitutes an effective leadership coach” (p. 1). They suggest a coach’s effectiveness should be measured based on the sustained development of the learner (Taylor et al, 2019). In transformative learning, Mezirow (1991a & 2000) correspondingly explains perspective transformation as enduring and irreversible.

Similar Facets and Processes

I argue the transformative learning framework is suitable for the coaching environment not only based on its core purposes and paradigms, but also because of its central processes and facets. There are several overlapping and aligned components but I focus primarily on what I have previously described as the facilitative processes: reflection, discourse, and action. I also explain the connections between facets such as meaning perspectives, psycho-cultural assumptions, and the self-concept.

Reflection is not only a key process of transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991), but it is also central for development in a coaching engagement. Toit & Reissner (2012) state “coaching provides a vehicle through which the individual is able to reflect on his/her own actions and thoughts for the purpose of alternative ways of being and behaving” (p. 179). Gray (2006), Fisher-Yoshida (2009), and Cox (2015) contend that specific time must be allotted for reflective processing for learning to occur. This practice can transpire during a coaching session, while completing a self-assessment, or in-between a coaching engagement.

Discourse is another important process shared by Mezirow’s theory and coaching. Mezirow states that discourse most commonly occurs in one-on-one settings which is precisely the relationship dynamic of a coach and a client. Typically, a coach and a client co-create a learning agreement documenting the flow and cadence of coaching conversations (Fisher-Yoshida (2009). These arrangements share many of the same parameters explained in Mezirow’s (1995) assumptions and conditions of discourse. Finally, and most importantly, the rationality facet within discourse is a vital part of the coaching process. Often times the client explores new ideas and insights related to their desired behavior change with their coach (Cox, 2015). This involves the testing and validating of the clients shifting assumptions based on interactive questioning from the coach which I suggest is reasoning tactic. 

An additional process relevant to transformative learning and coaching is action. Although the primary outcome of Mezirow’s (1997a) theory is autonomous thinking, his perspective transformation is not complete until reflective action is available to the learner. In coaching, action is both a process and an outcome. Many coaching engagements seek to arrive at an action, whether that is a new learning assignment or a change in behavior. Terblance et al. (2014) studied the action of leadership transitions as the desired result of the coaching process. The authors found “deep and lasting changes in meaning perspectives of transitioning leaders through coaching” (Terblance et al., 2014, p.60).

There are also several facets as described in this paper’s first section evident in both coaching and transformative learning. For example, habits of mind are a helpful construct to understand coaching. “Coaching informed by transformative learning theory is aimed at helping coachees gain an awareness of their current meaning perspectives (Cox, 2015, p. 35). When a client reaches a block in interpreting their dilemma, the coach can ask a series of questions to help a client awaken to the ways their habits of mind are not functional in explaining their problem. This process involves understanding the personal suppositions about the situation formed by a learner’s childhood and socialization experiences; these beliefs are defined as pyscho-cultural assumptions in transformation theory (Mezirow, 1978). Another facet related to perspective transformations and coaching is the self-concept. In Mezirow’s reflection processes, there are two types reframing: objective and subjective. Subjective reframing is critical self-reflection and “often requires the support of others, a positive self-concept and freedom from intense anxiety” (Dirkx et al., 2006, p. 125). Coaching provides both support and positivity in the developmental process which mirrors the need of adult learners.   

A Case for Connecting Transformative Learning to Coaching

Gray’s (2006) theoretical argument for the fusion of transformative learning with coaching and Cox’s (2015) application of Mezirow’s ten phases of meaning to coaching provide a worthy case for the use of this theory. In addition to the facilitative processes of reflection, discourse, and action, and the facets of meaning perspective, psycho-cultural assumptions, and self-concept, I argue there are also parallels between the social context of perspective transformation and the role of the educator with similar dynamics in coaching. Although coaching occurs at the individual level, clients are often encouraged to analyze the larger context of their organization and situation. Gray (2006) reinforces this point stating: “transformative learning involves a reflection on perspectives that goes beyond the individual and psychological” (p. 491). Social forces influence transformative learning as well as in coaching since the meaning-making process in both scenarios requires the examination of interactions beyond self-reflection and one-on-one dialogue. Finally, the role of the educator in perspective transformation is synonymous to the role of a coach in coaching. As mentioned previously, the transformative adult educator serves as a facilitator rather than a traditional teacher, promoting self-directed and problem-based learning (Mezirow, 1991a). Similarly, “the role of the facilitator or coach…is to help learners think through their dilemmas and their roles within them” (Cox, 2015, p. 33). These two additional external facets provide even more justification for the use of transformative learning in a coaching context. In summary, perspective transformation provides immense explanatory power for leadership coaching.


In this scholarly analysis I have examined the background and theoretical influences of transformative learning’s founder Jack Mezirow. I analyzed the theory’s foundations, processes, and facets, and then reviewed the past thirty years of theoretical developments and empirical findings. I concluded by integrating key components of the theory with the methods of coaching I now provide closing comments on this topic.

Mezirow’s transformative learning theory and its iterations over the last four decades provide a rich theoretical and empirical backdrop for the study of leadership coaching.  There is significant commonality between the purposes and paradigmatic assumptions of transformative learning and coaching. Whether it is their focus on the individual learner, the shared foundations in communicative learning, the similar meaning-making processes, or the common constructivist bent, there are clear parallels concerning coaching and transformative learning. In many respects, coaching integrates the processes of reflection and discourse with the leader’s identity and experience to serve as a powerful facilitator of transformative learning. I hear the field of coaching yearning for a multi-faceted and rigorous theoretical frameworks from which to inform both research and practice (Garvey et al., 2009; Toit, 2014; Taylor, Passarelli, & Van Oosten, 2019). I suggest Mezirow’s transformative learning theory could answer this call.


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