How to Utilise the Power of Language to Reduce Stress and Suffering
By Alan Sieler
From our personal experience we know that language is crucial to how well we function in everyday life. This is easily confirmed by a moment’s reflection on our engagement with email and social media as well as our phone and in-person interactions with each other. We humans are languaging beings that get things done, coordinate with each other and create the future through language.
Language is more than “a thing” that we use – it is a process that we are continuously immersed in. While many people are skilful at using language, our education and training systems pay insufficient attention to one aspect of the extraordinary power of language.
The linguistic tool kit of Ontological Coaching
One of the hallmarks of Ontological Coaching is the explicit recognition of the generative power of language and the skilful application of a “linguistic tool kit” to assist people enhance the quality of their personal and working lives. The linguistic tool kit consists of six ways that all humans, regardless of their first language and culture, continually generate their individual and collective realities. Each linguistic tool is a specific way that we create and shape our reality, like the tools a carpenter uses to create a cabinet or a desk. Everything we do in language is related to these linguistic tools.
One of the linguistic tools is “opinions”, which at first glance may not seem significant because we all have opinions about just about everything. However, this is a huge part of language that includes judgments, assessments, perspectives, points of view, assumptions, evaluations, appraisals, values, beliefs, preferences and prejudices. Humans have been characterised as “opinion-making machines” that consistently manufacture opinions.
One of the traps of this linguistic tool is that we can hold many of our opinions with great emotional intensity and without realising it treat our opinions as if they are facts. This can result in our opinions not being open to question and when they are questioned we can defend them with great vehemence, regarding other opinions as “wrong”, because our opinions are “right”.
From the ontological perspective (an opinion!), opinions are not good or bad or right or wrong, they simply are. The key question is:
“How useful are our opinions for generating helpful realities that can enable us to improve the quality of our lives, individually and collectively?”
In Ontological Coaching the large area of language that includes opinions is referred to as “assessments”. Our assessments can be negative and positive. Unfortunately we can be very unkind to ourselves with some of our negative self-assessments; these can occur in our internal conversations creating unhelpful realities without realising what we are doing.
In the challenge of raising children it is not uncommon for mothers to negatively assess how well they are doing as a mother, sometimes continually berating themselves for falling short of being a “good mother”.
The power of self-coaching to generate a more helpful reality
Two of the hallmarks of Ontological Coaching are:
the “uncovering” or revealing of negative self-assessments and the application of a process to inquire into the substance and usefulness of such assessments; and
the application of the process in self-coaching.
The process is called “grounding assessments” and it has been outlined in two previous newsletter articles (“How Constructive Are Your Negative Opinions?” and “Firmly Standing Your Ground in the Face of Criticism”). An integral part of becoming an ontological coach is to continually use the ontological methodology to self-coach, which includes learning the effective application of the grounding process.
As a student in the Graduate Diploma in Ontological Coaching “Jessica” realised that she was saying to herself “I do not know how to be a good mother to my daughter right now”. While she was aware of the difference between facts and opinions, she recognised that the strong emotional grip of the assessment meant that she was treating it as “true assessment” that could not be questioned, therefore condemning herself to a negative reality about herself as a mother.
Through self-coaching Jessica was able to skilfully apply the grounding assessments process
to shift from a negative to a more constructive reality. She has graciously agreed to share in her own words with how she did this by working through the five key questions that comprise the grounding process.
How does having this assessment take care, or serve, me? Two things occurred to me here – firstly I have a concern to be the best Mum I can be – to create a positive future for my daughter. But secondly, I could also see that having an assessment of ‘not knowing’ gave me a free pass on being responsible – being able to say “I don’t know” allowed me to metaphorically throw up my hands and say “I’m doing everything I know to do”.
In which areas of being a mother am I not adequate? I realised the assessment related only to certain areas of my daughter’s life. Combining the exploration of the answer to this question my response to question 5 regarding facts that do not provide evidence to support the assessment, I could point to many areas of my life where I do know how to be a good Mum. I realised I am a good Mum in many areas of her life, such as her eating habits and health, supporting her social life and school life without overly interfering, being emotionally available for important conversations fwith her and ensuring timely medical support. There is just one area of life that I don’t know what to do for her right now, and that is in relation to school attendance.
What key standards am I comparing myself to? Answering this question just made me laugh really. I am clear that as a parent, I hold myself to ridiculously high standards that really cannot even be met. As soon as anything is wrong with my kids or my kids’ lives, I take it as a personal failing as a Mum! Clearly it is impossible to protect my kids from anything bad happening in their lives ever.
What facts provide evidence to support this assessment? I noticed that all I had here really came down to other assessments – she is unhappy, she suffers from extreme anxiety. Even where there are facts – she is self-harming, or she does not attend all her classes at school – while I am using these as evidence, they are not necessarily evidence that I don’t know how to be a good mother – they are just facts that exist, there is no proven causal relationship.
What facts do not provide evidence to support this assessment? This question was quite easy – I was able to identify so many things that do not support the assessment. While some of this evidence consists of assessments, they can be substantiated, and what I realised is that: she is physically healthy; has a large network of friends; gets good grades at school; shares with me what is going on for her; has a healthy diet; has access to good medical help; and plays teams sports and the piano.
So coming back to my original assessment, I could see that the global statement “I don’t know how to be a good mother” was ungrounded, and in fact, in many aspects of life there was no evidence to support this. I “shrunk’” the assessment to be “I don’t know if she is at the right school”. I concluded that this narrower assessment was actually grounded.
The consequence of this was a huge reduction in my stress, and in particular any tendency to beat myself up for being a bad mother. It also made me feel less powerless, as I felt that the “problem” had shrunk with the assessment, to simply being about which school she should be attending.
You are invited to identify one negative assessment about yourself, or perhaps someone else, that is compromising the quality of your life, and take some quiet to work through the five questions in the grounding process.