Excerpt from the Introduction of Towards Professional Artistry With Ontological Coaching
(Volume IV of Coaching to the Human Soul)
By Alan Sieler
The project of integrating and deepening the ontological approach to coaching that takes place in this volume is explained through a number of interrelated themes:
understanding the nature of artistry and professional artistry;
detailed awareness of how artistry in Ontological Coaching can be developed;
the relevance of Ontological Coaching to the challenge of dealing with existential issues in contemporary societies;
the contribution of artistry in Ontological Coaching to the professionalisation of coaching.
While most of the book covers the process of moving towards artistry in Ontological Coaching, an appreciation of the potentially invaluable social contribution of this approach can be gained by situating it in an historical context. There are two components of this context, which are expressed as "dealing with existential issues" and "the professionalisation of coaching". Although the historical context is positioned in the last two chapters of the book, gaining an initial overview of the context will be helpful for being oriented to this final volume of Coaching to the Human Soul.
The growing challenge of dealing with existential issues
The increasingly fast-changing nature of the world, sometimes described as unprecedented in human history, and its ramifications for our wellbeing have been addressed at different stages in each of the previous three volumes. It has become apparent that one of the consequences of current historical circumstances for many societies has been the increasing incidence of what are expressed as mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety. These breakdowns in the wellbeing of individuals are the province of skilled mental health practitioners, such as psychologists and counsellors.
Coaches are not mental health practitioners and should not attempt to be so without appropriate education and training. However, it can be interpreted that the growth of coaching since the mid nineteen-nineties as a means of supporting people in their personal and professional lives indicates an important social need that is separate to mental health concerns. This need can be framed as the continual challenge of effectively dealing with existential issues.
Experiencing persistent difficulties in life, a general sense of dissatisfaction and not making desired progress can be regarded as existential issues. The ever-present challenges of organisational performance, leadership effectiveness and workplace satisfaction are existential issues. People act or behave on the basis of their perceptions. Perceptual and behavioural patterns are learned through the history of life experiences. These patterns often serve us well and sometimes not, and we can become stuck in outdated patterns that render us ineffective. This means that we have not been successful in developing more helpful ways of perceiving and acting in the circumstances we find ourselves in. In times of rapid change there is a risk that our habitual ways of perceiving and responding to different aspects of the world no longer work and the quality of our existence becomes compromised.
Existential challenges can also be framed as the challenge of living well, experiencing a satisfactory quality of existence and being effective in different areas of life without feeling the need for mental health support. Living well especially includes experiencing life as fulfilling, meaningful and suitably stimulating. It also involves effectively dealing with significantly unsettling life events that are inevitable aspects of human existence, which can be intensified in times of rapid change.
There is also a risk that continuing ineffectiveness in dealing with existential issues can lead to the development of mental health and deeper psychological issues. When done well, coaching can provide invaluable support for enhancing people’s abilities for dealing with existential issues, reducing the risk of mental health issues developing and contributing to the overall wellbeing of society. However, there is a crucial consideration that is not to be overlooked if coaching is to provide the required support for existential issues. This is ensuring that coaches have a well-honed conceptual and practical working knowledge of human perception and behaviour.
If coaches are to be sufficiently skilled in supporting clients to deal with existential issues it is essential that they have a deeply grounded understanding of human perception and behaviour, and that this is informed by a body of knowledge or a discipline that enables extensive practical learning of the application of the discipline.
Ontological Coaching is grounded in a discipline of human perception and behaviour known as Ontology of the Human Observer. The ideas of renowned thinkers in different areas of philosophy and biology have been integrated to form a discipline that has a substantive theoretical foundation and a well-articulated coaching methodology for effective practice.
The professionalisation of coaching
Despite statements the position coaching as anew profession, coaching is not yet a profession. While various associations and tertiary institutions in different parts of the world provide coaching certification, coaching is an unregulated industry and unfortunately falls well short of what is required to be a profession.
One of the requirements of a profession is that it is based on a substantive and coherent body of knowledge – a discipline. If coaching is to develop long-term standing in the community as a viable means of providing support for existential issues, it is vital that it is seen to be based on a sound discipline. As was stated in the Introduction to Volume I:
In the absence of sound theory and practice, there is a risk that coaching could be marginalised and trivialised, and it will be seen as a fad, which anyone can do by attaching the label ‘coach’ to themselves. If this happens, it will be a huge blow to the potential of coaching to make the world a better place by enriching people’s personal and professional lives.
Being effective in assisting people to make progress with existential issues requires more than developing a set of minimal coaching competences. It requires experiential understanding of the complexities and nuances of human perception and behaviour through immersion in a discipline and its practical applications. While competences are an important starting point, coaching proficiency goes one step further through the acquisition of complex skillsets that equip the coach to be sufficiently versatile and adaptable to engage deeply with clients across a wide range of existential issues.
By being a coaching discipline Ontological Coaching can make an important contribution to enhancing the professionalisation of coaching.
The development of coaching artistry
The elegant, graceful and highly effective application of one or more complex skillsets in any area of human endeavour can be regarded as a form of artistry. A typical view of artistry is that it only applies to those with extraordinary talents in artistic fields such as painting and dancing. However, artistry can be observed in the everyday activities of people who are highly skillful in dealing with complex issues, such as smoothly managing three young children on an extensive shopping trip or the deftness of a business leader in how they relate with their team in managing the change associated with merging with another company.
Donald Schön recognised that artistry could be observed in the work of professional practitioners and invented the term “professional artistry”. He observed some practitioners who seemed extraordinarily skilful in successfully handling unexpected non-routine situations, without appearing to have more content knowledge than other practitioners. He assessed that they seemed to know the most appropriate thing to do in the most appropriate way at the most appropriate time. Such action can appear simple on the surface. However, this impression belies the deep commitment of the practitioner and embodiment of skills through years of dedicated practice and experience, underpinned by a constant desire to learn and continually improve.
As coaching is not a profession it is premature to refer to coaches developing professional artistry. However, we can consider how: (i) coaching artistry can be developed in the application of a discipline of human perception and behaviour, such as Ontology of the Human Observer and (ii) the development of such artistry can contribute towards the professionalisation of coaching.
Moving towards artistry in Ontological Coaching involves the gradual embodiment of fundamental coaching principles and skills, as well as a range of complex skillsets in each of the three existential domains of language, emotions and body. Foremost in the embodiment process is the coach’s continual engagement in ontological design and transformation of their Way of Being. This requires engaging in self-coaching as a regular practice of applying the methodology of Ontological Coaching in addressing their own existential issues.
Cultivating artistry in Ontological Coaching comes not only from extensive coaching experience, but also from continual reflection on each coaching engagement. This consists of the coach reflecting on:
their Way of Being in each session and if it allowed them to effectively utilise their coaching skillsets for the benefit of their client; and
how skilfully they used appropriate aspects of the coaching methodology to facilitate the coachee to develop helpful new perceptions and behaviours.
The reflection process includes the coach’s individual reflections, as well as regular shared reflections with fellow coaches and mentor coaches.
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