What is Ontological Coaching? | talkingabout (2022)

If you wish to explore the ontological approach to coaching in more depth then you may find value in downloading and reading some essays that we have written on various topics. We suggest you begin with the Ontological Foundations essay. You can find these documents on our Ontological Study page.

You can also get a further appreciation of ontological coaching by reading Aboodi Shabi's short essay by clicking here.

As an extra treat, here are some thoughts on the transformative power of ontological coaching and what makes ontological coaching special by Alan Sieler whose series of books entitled 'Coaching to the Human Soul' is a landmark work on the ontological approach. Alan further expands on his interpretation of ontological coaching on the Newfield Institute web site.

You can also watch Alan discuss ontological coaching on this YouTube video.

Coaches have been particularly prominent in the sports performance domain for a long time. Coaches support people to develop and take full advantage of their personal skills, competencies and what they already know. In the last decade, we have seen coaching translated into many other fields – business, education, performing arts and so on.

An ontological coach is a particular kind of coach who embodies the powerful distinctions of the "Ontology of Language", also spoken of as the "Ontology of the Human Observer", and who is able to support people in achieving their goals and creating a new way of being. Even though people often know what they want in life, quite often they do not know how to get there. Similarly, they do not always know how to avoid what they do not want. Sometimes, people do not even know what is missing for them. Dealing with this blindness is the job of an ontological coach. They support others to address what is missing for them in the different domains of their lives, relationships, work, family, career and so on.

The role of an ontological coach is not to tell people how to be or behave, rather to assist them to identify and achieve what they desire. Ontological coaching is not a process based on a script known by the coach. It is about enabling others to better serve themselves, expand their possibilities, increase their capacity to learn, act more effectively and better design their future. There is artistry and deep learning in ontological approach.

Some History

Ontological coaching stems from the philosophies of Martin Heidegger, J. L. Austin and John Searle together with the work of a number of Chileans – Humberto Maturana, Fernando Flores and Rafael Echeverria.

Martin Heidegger, most notably in his seminal work Being and Time, explored the human condition in terms of everyday living. Austin and then Searle developed a philosophy of language that sees language as not simply descriptive but performative and action oriented.

Humberto Maturana is a biologist who specialises in the area of cognition. His life’s work has been the development of a new interpretation of what it is to be cognitive. This interpretation has been the key to seeing human beings as human observers. Observers, who rather than just seeing what exists independent of themselves, constantly change their own structure in a dance with their environment. Being social creatures, this environment includes other human beings. Flores was the Finance Minister in the Allende government and was imprisoned during the coup in the early 1970s. During his imprisonment, he spent a lot of time with Maturana and developed the work of John Searle and other linguists who had proposed the idea of speech act theory – how we use language to act in the world. Following his release, Flores moved to the USA where he went into business and wrote a book with Terry Winograd entitled "Understanding Computers and Cognition". This book pulled together the ideas of Maturana and Searle and developed the concept of an organisation as a "network of commitments". Published in 1986, this book also proposed the use of computers for work group computing – one of the major uses of information technology today.

Echeverria worked with Flores until he and Julio Olalla decided to go their own way and formed The Newfield Group. Echeverria developed the "Ontology of Language" as a basis for ontological coaching and The Newfield Group ran a number of programs known as “Mastering the Art of Professional Coaching” (MAPC) during the 1990s. Newfield Network continues this program around the world. The ontological approach to coaching has been further developed by Alan Sieler at Newfield Australia (now Newfield Institute). He has expanded the notion to be the Ontology of the Human Observer. Newfield Institute currently running ontological coaching courses in Australia, Asia and South Africa.

Being an Ontological Coach

Ontological Coaching is about generating shifts in a coachee's "way of being". A human's way of being is not a fixed state but one of continual change and the role of the Ontological Coach is to work with their others to design a way of being that the coachee assesses serves them best.

There are certain aspects that encapsulate the being of an Ontological Coach and include:

  1. Service

    An Ontological Coach must hold a perspective that they are to be of service to the people they coach. Ontological Coaching is not about the ego of the Coach, but delivering value to the coachee. Good coaching is only good coaching if the coachee claims it is so.

  2. Respect

    It is imperative the Ontological Coach treats the client in a manner that does not violate their dignity. This means that a coach has the coachee's explicit permission to engage in conversations about the coachee's way of being and places where those conversations may go. Ensuring ongoing permission is an imperative of our approach to Ontological Coaching.

  3. Trustworthiness

    Trust is the cornerstone of all relationships and an Ontological Coach ensures that they develop trust with their coachee. The Ontological Coach must be assessed by their coachee as being sincere, competent as a coach, adept at making and honouring their commitments and as having the coachee's best interests at heart.

  4. Confidentiality

    In order to effectively build trust within the coaching relationship, the issue of confidentiality must be sacrosanct. All conversations with the coachee must remain confidential unless the coachee gives permission for a matter to be discussed with others. This may mean that the Ontological Coach sometimes has to deal with others who feel they have a right to hear about the coaching conversations. For example, this could apply to a manager in an organisation who is paying the bill and believes this gives them the right to know the details of the conversations. One of the major challenges in coaching can be maintaining confidentiality but without it trust will suffer and the coaching relationship will not work.

  5. Understanding Your Limitations as a Coach

    Ontological Coaches know their limitations. They are able to recognise when they may potentially damage a coachee and have the capacity to discontinue a coaching conversation or contract when they do not assess they have the competence to handle the coachee's concerns or state of being. An Ontological Coach will also frequently check with their coachee in relation to the value of the coaching. If the coach does not feel they are providing as much value as they could, then they should raise their concern with their coachee, but the final word belongs to the coachee. They know best what they need.

  6. Non-Directive Conversation

    Ontological Coaches provide their coachees with the opportunity to unfold new ways of observing and acting, but they do not give direction. To do so is to assume that the Coach knows what is best for their coachee and accordingly diminishes the respect shown. At times, Ontological Coaches engage in sharing distinctions in the domains of language, emotion and body and may invite their coachees to consider new ways of observing or acting, but this should always be an invitation that can be declined by the coachee.

  7. The Competence of Ontological Coaching

    Ontological Coaching is based on an interpretation of a human being in three domains - language, emotions and body. A skilled Ontological Coach is adept at observing themselves and others in these domains and also in intervening in these domains to bring shifts in their own or their coachee's way of being. An Ontological Coach also understands the dynamics of the conversational patterns in which human beings engage and is able to skilfully employ those patterns in their coaching and see holes in the pattern where a coachee declares they are ineffectively dealing with a breakdown.

The Talking About Approach

The Basic Premise

Previously at Gaia Consulting Group and now through Talking About, we have further developed the ontological approach by focusing on making it more readily accessible and providing clear models for coaching and developing greater effectiveness. Much of this development has stemmed from our extensive work in organisational settings. As part of this approach, we have sought to create a fundamental premise of the human condition to which everyone can relate. This premise states:

“Human life is internally experienced as an ongoing process in indefinable moments yet our life appears to us as a constant state of being.”

What is Ontological Coaching? | talkingabout (1)

This premise lends itself to a number of concepts:

  • In any given moment, our actions are a manifestation of our way of being at that moment;
  • Our way of being is dynamic, but over time, we see patterns of being from which we create our stories of how we and the world are;
  • If we are to create something new or different in our lives, then we need to develop a new way of being in future and ultimately new patterns of being.

Because we are building from the very foundations of the human condition, ontological theory and coaching can be applied to all aspects of life.

As a result of this premise, ontological coaching focuses on two key aspects - the ability to develop effective interpretations of the human condition and how we relate to others, and conversational competence. Coaches use these distinctions to explore the way in which a client takes action in life and supports the client to establish a more effective way of being and, as a result, more effective actions.

Being Human

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Our interpretation of the human way of being involves four mutually dependent domains – our physical body, our moods, our emotions and our language. These domains are seen as hierarchy of predisposition such that our physical being predisposes our mood, which in turn predisposes our emotional responses, which then predisposes our linguistic being. An ontological coach is a keen observer of human beings in these domains and seeks to intervene in what they see is the most appropriate domain to initiate a change in being. They then ensure there is embedded change in all domains to achieve a new pattern of being.

Second Order Learning

Learning can be seen as a simple process that begins where an individual takes action in the world. That action will lead to some outcomes and the individual can assess those outcomes and associate the value of the action with their assessment of the outcome. If the assessment is a positive one, they will most likely repeat the action in a similar situation. If the assessment is a negative one, it is likely the action will not be repeated. For example, if we put our hand on a hot surface, the outcome is pain and so we will most likely not take a similar action knowingly again. This process of learning is what is termed "First Order Learning" and is based on the premise that learning comes from observing an action and assessing the result. This is the basis of standard problem solving techniques.

What is Ontological Coaching? | talkingabout (3)However, there is more to learning than just assessing our actions. Why did we take the action in the first place? Here it is useful to go back to the idea of a breakdown. From an ontological perspective, we take actions to address our breakdowns in the context of our core concerns in life. In other words, what is a breakdown for me is dependent on the observer I am. What is a breakdown for me may well not be a breakdown for someone else or may be a different breakdown. Therefore the actions we see as possible are limited by our interpretation of any given breakdown. This opens up another possible level of learning, what is termed "Second Order Learning", because we can now question the observer we are. We can ask myself the question, "What is it about our way of being that we see the situation this way?"

By asking this question, we also call into question our interpretation of the breakdown and new interpretations about the breakdown can provide us with new possible actions and hence the possibility of learning. The powerful distinctions of second order learning can open up new levels of possibility and therein lies much of the power of ontological coaching.

The Conversation Pattern

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Built around these interpretations is an understanding of the basic conversational pattern employed with varying success by all human beings. This conversational pattern defines three types of conversations:

  • Descriptive Conversations
  • Speculative Conversations
  • Action Conversations

Each of these types of conversations play a vital role in how we design and achieve what we want in life. An Ontological Coach is able to pass this conversational competence to their clients and also to see what conversations could occur to address their client's needs.

But wait, there's more ...

Although these are some of the key themes of our approach to ontological coaching, they are only an entree.

Ontological coaching provides a greater richness to understanding the human condition and relationships that most other approaches. The ontological approach is not simply about coaching, it provides for a very different way of understanding your experience of life. The highs and the lows.

It also provides a means of leading a more fulfilling life!

Do you want to learn more?

There are many articles on our web site that speak to practical applications of the ontological approach to coaching. We invite you to read them and explore more about the ontological approach to coaching by going to our Articles page.

If you really want to explore the ontological approach in greater depth, then we invite you to read our essays on our Ontological Study page.

All of these resources are available at no cost.

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