Coaching to the Human Soul
By Alan Sieler
Ontological Coaching is a powerful approach for getting to deep issues that block us from going forward. The depth of these issues is about the human soul. An ontological approach to coaching has the potential to touch the soul of coachees and radically shift their perceptions of themselves and what is possible in life.
Ontological Coaching utilises an interpretation that the nature of human existence (Way of Being) is a three way interrelationship between language, emotions and body. Coaching that only involves language is a single dimensional approach. The combination of language, emotions and body brings richness and depth to what is possible in a coaching conversation.
The nature of our existence is the dynamic interrelationship between these dimensions. Our soul is the intersection of these three domains of existence. This defines who we are and what we hold to be possible and not possible in life. Soul is about living a deep, meaningful and fulfilling life. An ontological coach does not coach directly to shift behaviour. Whilst behavioural change is crucial, the avenue to change is through the coachee's way of being. This is the "driver" of behaviour, and is an avenue to the soul, which is a source of deep change.
In a coaching conversation, Karen listed some key areas of dissatisfaction in her life. These were: insufficient money, not having a partner and not asking for what she wants. She chose to explore the issue of money.
After a range of exploratory questions about money and her life circumstances the coach asked, is "What is the story you hold about yourself not having enough money?" lf Karen said that it meant she could not have fun, and with that her body lurched back slightly and her eyes widened. Although a simple statement, this was a revelation for her as she came to see how life had become serious and heavy for her. The coach then said, "What else is part of this story?" She replied, "That I can't have what I want".
Her last comment opened up a different path for the conversation. She was asked, "Where did you learn that you can't have what you want? I don't think you were born with that were you?" She said she had learned in her home life when she was a young child. In particular she said that she had learned from her father that she was a nuisance when she asked for things and she should not expect to get what she wanted. Tears began to well in her eyes and the coach paused and asked if she was OK to continue. Karen requested a glass of water and said she wanted to continue.
The coach then asked, "What did you learn about yourself from being told that you shouldn't have what you want?" She said that she learned "You're stupid. You're an idiot." The coach then offered some thoughts about powerful learning that can happen when we are young. She (the coach) said when we are young the opinions of others, especially our parents, are very important to us. "Their judgments matter a lot to us, for we want to be accepted and approved by them. None of us wants to feel rejected. In doing so, we grant them a lot of authority, and their opinions carry a lot of weight with us, so much so that we take them on board, not just as opinions but as facts. In essence, we can be very vulnerable to unconsciously making the opinions others have of us define who we are."
The coach paused and asked Karen what she made of this interpretation. Karen said she could see how she had learned these opinions. The coach continued, "But something else happens to. It is not only 'You're stupid. You're an idiot' that has been learned, but also as 'I'm stupid. I'm an idiot.' Of course, when we have such strong negative opinions of ourselves, why should we expect anything in life? Why would anyone find us attractive? We certainly may be too stupid to have enough money."
The coach explained that these opinions are called negative self-assessments. She explained that we all have positive self-assessments and spent some time supporting Karen to articulate some of her positive self-assessments. Karen then asked, "But why do the negative ones overpower the positive ones?" The coach then said, "Let's take a look at that."
With the coachee's permission, these statements became the basis for a deeper exploration to begin to touch on a central feature of Karen's (and anyone's) fundamental way of being. Often there are deeper and core negative self-assessments operating as silent tapes in the background of our existence. They play a pivotal role in running our life. Using a specific questioning strategy, the coach and Karen explored the deep meaning behind Karen's negative opinions. This can be extraordinarily revealing, and at the same time very challenging for the coachee. Sometimes this is called "facing the monster", for it can reveal things we don't want to see. The irony is that they are severely sabotaging the quality of our existence and not facing them gives them their power.
For Karen, it became "I'm not wanted" and "I'm not loved", leading her to think that she was fundamentally flawed as a human being and that she was a fixed property, unable to change. Part way through the questioning the coach noted that her breathing became shallow and she began to perspire a little and checked in if she was OK to continue. She said she was and wanted to continue. She began to see the possibility of getting out of this insidious linguistic trap when she recognised that she was not born with these ultra negative opinions of herself and that they were not a permanent part of her existence. They were learned and could be unlearned.
The coach explained that these deep negative self-opinions can have strong emotional grip on us, and these emotions (called moods) can endure and run our life. This is because moods are predispositions for action - they predispose to see the world in certain ways, and reveal what is and is not possible for us. Karen said the moods associated with her deep negative opinions were anxiety, depression, and resentment. The coach suggested that these are heavy moods and Karen said "Yes, much of life is a burden for me."
Karen was invited to explore how her negative opinions and heavy moods were embodied; ie, held in her body. With her permission, the coach provided some observations and invitations to explore making small shifts in her posture. It was observed that she was slightly tilted forward from the shoulder blades to the neck and the top of the head. It was also observed that her hips were pushed back and that her knees were locked tight, as well as tightness in her jaw. Karen commented she often required chiropractic treatment to have her back adjusted. With her permission the coach adjusted her posture so that she became more upright. She was invited to imagine having a string attached to the crown of her head, that was being pulled upwards so that her neck vertebrae gently stretched, whilst her chin remained parallel to the ground. Suggestions were made to adjust the position of her hips and to "take a breath and exhale down into soft and flexible knees".
Karen was asked how this different posture was for her. She found it amazing that she felt so much lighter and things seemed so much clearer. She was invited to walk in her "new posture" and then go back to her "old posture" to appreciate the difference. The world was a very different place for her, including the world of possibilities, from each posture. The coach observed that her face had opened up and there was more sparkle in her eyes - she "showed up" differently to the world! Karen reported that from her "new posture" that she was not stupid and that it was legitimate for her to ask for what she wanted. She was provided with some gentle exercises to continue re-educating her body into a more supportive posture.
In a follow-up conversation Karen reported feeling "relieved, being worthy of a place in the world, and having a new direction and sense of purpose." Ontological Coaching can be extremely powerful in respectfully and caringly touching the coachee's soul. When this occurs the coach is like a poet (from the Greek, "poiesis", which means to create), generating new meaning. The coachee is able to view him/herself and the world differently, so that new possibilities and avenues for creating a better life to open up.
Coaching To The Human Soul is the title of a trilogy of books to be published on an ontological approach to coaching.