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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

Ontological Coaching in Action

by Alan Sieler

George is a manager of a business unit in a large manufacturing company. He has an outstanding background as an engineer and gained rapid promotion to his current position. Unfortunately though, relationships with the people in his unit had gradually deteriorated. George often found himself snappy and irritable, and even though he did not want to be this way, it was clearly interfering with his effectiveness in his role.

George had come to the Coaching in Action Workshop. From this he gained a clear understanding that effective communication was a key problematic area for him in the workplace. In short, he was experiencing a communication breakdown in making clear and effective requests. George was shooting himself in the foot when it came to promotion opportunities, as his performance reviews consistently highlighted the need for improvement in his communication.

George reported that he often found himself angry with the people in his unit, and that he was often short and withdrawn in his expression of this anger. When asked what the anger was about he replied that he became angry when he felt that he had to ask people to do things, because they should know what to do and that it was an insult to him to have to ask. Further exploration revealed that this was a pattern of behaviour he had learned in his childhood. George grew up in a household where a very strong and clear message was that you offend people if you do not know what to do for them, and that you should not have to be asked. In short, if you cared you would be alert, anticipate what they want and do it for them. Furthermore, a very strong and unstated message he learned was that if you did not do this, your fundamental worth as a human being was questionable.

Thus, we could say that George had a very powerful story and associated beliefs in one area of relating with people. We might be tempted to say that all he had to do was change the story and he could change his behaviour. However, this story (occurring in language) is only one aspect of his way of being. His story also had a strong emotional grip on him. His story carried an expectation that not only should he be alert to what others want done without them having to ask him, it also carried the unquestioned assumption that others should be as sensitive to him. Needless to say this story carried a fair bit of tension with it. A lot of emotional energy was required to maintain alertness to the needs of others, and not have to deal with the question of self-worth, as well as deal with the insensitivity of others when they did not spontaneously notice what needed doing. The emotional consequence was that most of the time George lived in a mood of resentment. In other words, anger was almost permanently in the background, easily triggered when he felt he had to ask others.

However, this is still not the complete picture of how George had taken on a way of being with regard to requests in the workplace. His story and his mood were also embodied, ie: he had configured his posture so that (i) he found it hard to ask people and (ii) when he did ask, his requests were very ineffectual.

In Ontological Coaching, we seek to discern what is the fundamental Way of Being that is hindering effective action (in this case, asking in a manner that gains cooperation so that the business unit can run smoothly and effectively). George's Way of Being, like the rest of us, is a dynamic interplay between the language of his story, his emotions, and his body posture. An ontological coach is an acute observer of how the interplay between language, emotions and body is a way of being that can generate ineffective behaviour and suffering. In addition, effective change requires the story, the emotions and their embodiment to change.

It may well be insufficient to only change the story, as its emotional grip and embodiment may remain. In the conversation, the coach is active in exploring all three areas with the person being coached. In the case of George, it was important to alert him to some key omissions in how he was wording his requests. Thus, George had some additional ways of using language to enhance his communication skills. George had been provided with a strategy for how to make effective requests. However, in the approach of Ontological Coaching, we do not focus on providing people with strategies per se. The coach was not interested in bolting on a strategy for George, for in this approach we regard every behaviour as an expression of a way of being. If the way of being does not shift, then regardless of how exquisite the strategy seems, it is highly unlikely to be implemented. In other words, the effective use of requests in delegation is not a strategy, it is a way of being. George's way of being was not going to support him to employ this strategy.

Clearly, it was important to move beyond the language area of George's being and focus on emotions and body. In addition to his mood of resentment, the coach also assessed that George was holding fear in his body, which can be thought of as a mood of anxiety. Fear often lives in the chest area, as an expression of withdrawing in to protect ourselves. It would seem that George had also experienced a constancy of background fear in his childhood. If he was not alert to the needs of others and what he needed to do for them, then he would be chastised or punished.

For children especially, this means not being accepted, even ostracised, something never pleasant to deal with, and certainly to be feared. George's moods of resentment and anxiety became embodied, and in subtle ways these moods permeated how he was in the workplace.

The embodiment of moods is a powerful influence on how situations are observed, and what action is possible to improve circumstances. Moods can be regarded as predispositions for action: the particular mood we will in will predispose us to behave in certain ways and not others. George's moods were not predisposing him to engage in effective communication.

One of the most profound areas of leverage in coaching, at all times with the permission of the person being coached, is to work with his or her posture. Even when using the linguistic strategy for making requests, George's fundamental body configuration did not alter, and his negative story and moods remained. When making his request (he was asked to speak the words he remembered using in a recent incident) it was observed that he rounded his shoulders slightly, slumped forward and down, and that his chest concaved.

With George's permission, the coach stood behind him and lightly held his shoulders whilst he spoke his request again. Even then, the coach noticed that George continued to subtly concave his chest. The coach shared this observation with George, who immediately became aware of what he was doing and was amazed.

Again giving the coach permission to lightly hold his shoulders, George rehearsed his request by holding his chest firm (but not rigid). To his surprise, not only was there a different emotion in how he made the request, exemplified by an alteration in the tone of his voice (from harsh to a medium-soft tone with greater depth), but also the very words he spoke altered to be more inclusive of the person he was asking for assistance. This was practiced a number of times so that George could get "the feel" of what it was like to make requests from a "different body".

George was not provided with a particular technique or strategy to delegate more effectively. Instead, by observing and working with his way of being, George was able to become more effective with his requests. Consequently, he reduced his suffering and the suffering of those around him, as well as enhance the productivity of his unit. In addition, the shift in George's way of being had important positive benefits for his relationships with his wife and children.

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