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  • Michelle Edwards

Ontological Coaching in Action

By Michelle Edwards

Session 1


Before my client (Khithi) arrived, I noticed I was feeling a little unsettled in myself so I did a short sitting practice and made some adjustments to my posture and my breathing which helped me feel centred and resourceful going into the conversation.  


When Khithi arrived, she seemed on edge - she had rushed and arrived late. She sat down on the front edge of her chair and was fiddling with her hands. I observed a lot of tension in her shoulders and particularly her jaw. I assessed that she wasn’t in a space that would be conducive to getting the most out of our conversation.


I invited her to engage in a centring exercise. I assed she would get more out of it if she was alone. I gave her a five minute breathing/body centring practice and told her I was going to leave the room and be back once she was finished. I set a timer for her so she could relax rather than continuously check how long she had taken. I went into the garden and did the same practice I had given her. When I returned to the room there was a visible difference. She was sitting back in her chair and she was breathing more deeply but her shoulders and jaw still seemed visibly tense. She thanked me for leaving her to do it on her own because it allowed her to focus on herself rather than worrying about what I was doing while her eyes were closed. She also shared that the timer was useful as she could relax into it without needing to check how long had passed. I silently congratulated myself for using my intuition about how best to take care of Khithi in that moment.


I assessed that Khithi was really suffering yet found it hard to show her vulnerability. This assessment helped me to be patient and feel deep empathy for her. Being in a mood of acceptance about her current Way of Being helped me to slow down and indicate that what was happening for her in the moment was okay.


Khithi is the CEO of a non-profit organisations that focuses on child hunger. When she started at the organisation just under 7 months ago, she set herself a 12-month goal for what she wanted to achieve in the organization as a starting point.


Khithi started the session stating the issue she wanted to discuss was the feeling that time was running out and that she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to resign from her position because “she wasn’t making any progress”. She felt constantly anxious and on edge.


I asked what was important to her in her life, what mattered the most that wasn’t happening for her in her current circumstances. She immediately responded, “I want to feel peace, I want to feel like I’m not in a race”. She deeply cared about the cause of the organisation. She had grown up as a young child not having her basic needs met. Supporting children and giving them a fighting chance in life mattered deeply to her.


I asked her whether she felt this sense of there never being enough time also occurred in other areas of life or whether it was only in her position as CEO. She reported feeling like this in all areas of life. She had a subtle sense of always having to do something and wasn’t always sure what it was. She wasn’t enjoying her job, she felt like she was not cut out for the position she held.


I had a deep intuition that there was something lying at the root of what she was experiencing and I was very conscious not to get lost in my own agenda.


I asked her what was at stake if she continued living this way and she started to tear up and said, ‘It would be a shitty life to live.”


The conversation meandered around for a while. She spoke about her family life and feeling like she was not given the same respect and legitimacy her parents and extended family gave her sisters. I asked her what she thought that was about and she responded that in her culture you are  only really considered an adult once you were married and had children, which she did not have. I empathised with her and said that I can imagine that must be very difficult and feel incredibly delegitimising. Her response surprised me. In, what I assessed was a mood of resignation mixed with resentment she said, “Yes, but it is my own fault”.


I asked her if she could tell me a little more about this, what did she feel was her fault? Her response was, “I fucked up [her words] and ran out of time”. My intuition told me to hold the silence, I could see she was thinking.


Khithi shared the following: based on some blood tests, she had reached an age where she had run out of time to be able to conceive a child. This was an unfortunate facticity for her (something biological that could not be changed). One of her sisters, her best friend and herself could not get pregnant naturally. Her sister and her friend had fertility treatments which led to them having children. She believed deeply that if she was patient and believed it would happen for her, it would. She also felt she had time. Due to a series of events; her husband having an affair, placing her focus on saving her marriage, ending up getting a divorce and going into early menopause, she ran out of time.


She shared that she had put these events and how she truly felt in a ‘box’ and not looked at it. I asked if she thought there was any connection between what she had shared and how she was currently experiencing life. She said that she had not seen the connection but that it definitely resonated.


She further shared being deeply angry at herself as well as deeply sad about the fact that she would never carry and give birth to a child of her own. Her fundamental concern, and what profoundly mattered to her, was a deep need to be a mother of her own biological child. Unfortunately, by blaming herself she carried some core negative self-assessments (very limiting and unhelpful self-beliefs) in relation to this concern.


My interpretation of what was holding her back was a mood of deep resentment towards herself and her ex-husband. She was fighting against the fact that she could no longer conceive a child.


I introduced her to the moods framework and she immediately stated that she was living in a combination of three negative moods of resentment, resignation and anxiety and could totally see how they were predisposing how she lived her life. I assessed that some additional exploration around moods and emotions might be useful, especially around grief, sadness and regret


I asked her what was at stake for her in not making progress and she shared that she could continue to feel angry and inadequate for the rest of her life.


We were coming to the end of our session at what I thought was a crucial time. I checked with her about whether she was able to continue for 15 min but she didn’t have the time. She requested that we have another session the following week.


I asked her how she experienced the session and what she thought she might do differently between now and next week. She reported that it felt like a smog surrounding her had cleared. She felt good. She shared that she was going to stop every time this feeling (of time running out) occurred and ask herself whether there really is a time constraint or whether it’s coming from a deep mood of anxiety.


After our session I made some detailed notes about the possible distinctions I could work with when I saw her the following week.

·      Exploring Moods, particularly the mood of resentment, as well as grief vs. sadness.

·      Core negative self-assessments

·      Grounding assessments

·      Cultural and historical narratives

·      Most important - an exploration in the domain of the body


Session 2


From the beginning of this session, I interpreted that Khithi was showing up very differently in her body. She was less constricted in her chest, her shoulders and to some extent her jaw, (I still noticed some tightness/tension there). She arrived with a smile and she wasn’t late (which I saw as significant, given the theme in the previous session of running out of time and telling me in her that she was always late). She appeared to be generally much more at ease.  

I noticed myself feeling excited about the distinctions I could share that could be useful, but consciously reigned myself in so I didn’t go off on my own agenda.

I shared my assessments of how different she looked and she shared that she felt different and was cautiously optimistic that something big had shifted for her.

I asked her what she felt still felt unresolved in her and what needed to happen in order to shift her from being cautiously optimistic to trusting this new way of being/feeling.


She wanted to explore three things:


·      How to stop repeatedly having the thought, “I wish I could go back in time” as well exploring the

anger she felt towards herself.

·      She wanted to lose weight and get into shape.

·      She also shared wanting to explore the cultural/historical narrative she was born and lived into.


I suggested these might or might not be separate issues and it was possible we would not get to everything in the session but that a shift in her Way of Being could lead to shifts in other areas. I asked what she would like to focus on first. She wanted to talk about this feeling of regret and anger towards herself for not having done whatever she could to have a baby when she still could conceive and explore her cultural historical narrative.


She explained that in her culture a woman’s purpose was to have children and if they did not or did not want them, there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They are not seen as adult women that deserve the respect that comes with being married and having children.


She voiced wanting to “break free” and be different around her family, she wanted to feel empowered and good about herself when she spent time with them. I asked her what her interpretation of break free was and she said, to not be so affected by their opinions.


Her suffering was a struggle to accept the biological facticity that she would not fulfil a deep need – yearning - to be a mother of her own biological child. Consequently, she observed her life as one that lacked meaning and purpose based on this reality.


I took her through the moods framework again, specifically looking at resentment, how it can come about, how it can keep us stuck and make it very difficult to move forward. She immediately resonated with this mood. She said she is angry with herself, angry with her ex-husband for having an affair, angry at her family and quick to anger at work. I shared how moods can be sneaky and slip into the background and predispose us to behave in a certain way, including our in-the-moment reactions. She also resonated with resignation. She felt resigned about not having a meaningful life by not giving birth to her own child. It seemed that what was crucially at stake was her identity – who she was as an adult woman in her culture.


I invited her to engage in some body coaching. We looked at the body of resentment and then the body of acceptance. We spent quite a lot of time here connecting to the feeling of acceptance, love and forgiveness, creating the contrast between the two. She ended up making a significant declaration from the body of acceptance which was, “I forgive myself”. This was a very liberating moment for her, freeing herself from an unintentionally imposed existential prison of unhelpful moods and associated language and body.


She wanted to talk about her family. In my listening she sounded defensive at first. She then paused, sighed deeply and sat back. She shared that actually, she loved her family and had a deep need to belong as a legitimate member of the family and community, regardless of being a woman that could not have a child.


She felt that in order for her to belong she had to repent and live under a cloud of shame. She couldn’t see the possibility of belonging and been treated and feeling legitimised.


Khithi was making many assessments about others’ assessments. She was living in many layers of assessments about assessments.


I shared the distinction of assessments and assertions and some of the complexity around getting them confused i. e. treating opinions as if they are facts).


After some exploration of the grounding assessments process, to check if there was any substance to her quite deep-seated unhelpful opinions, she realised that she was making the assumption that her family was making judgments of her based on the fact that they were part of the community and its cultural narrative.


I asked her if she felt it would be useful to separate her family (mom, dad and siblings) from the wider community.


She was willing to work through the grounding assessment process to check if there was substance to her judgments. A significant assessment she held was that she had let her family down and that her family were disappointed in her and that they thought less of her than her sisters.


The process had a very big impact on her. She got very emotional, saying that she had been pushing them away because of this anger inside her. In the grounding assessment process, she was able to remember so many situations that pointed to them loving and caring for her. She wondered out loud why she was unable to remember or see these things. I shared a little around the power of assessments and moods as assessments allowing us to see and not see what’s in front of us.


We spoke about her choosing whether or whether not to continue to give the community authority over her and she said she didn’t really care what anyone thought other than her family.


I wrote down some of the things she shared about the things her family had said and done for her and checked with her if what I recorded was accurate. I asked her if she would like to tap into how it feels through some role play. We sat in two chairs and I played the role of her family members and read out some of what she had shared. I asked her what the body of believing these things felt like.


She made a two-part declaration standing up. “I am loved and accepted by my family, I am a legitimate member of my family and my community.” This was another powerfully liberating moment for her.


She loved the exercise and felt like she had received a dose of love.


In my interpretation Khithi left the session in a deep mood of gratitude and, in her words, “a sense of belonging she had not felt in a while”.

A month later later she kindly shared:

“Dear Michelle, I want to express my gratitude for the deeply rewarding coaching conversations we have had together. I always feel genuinely supported, heard, accepted and cared for, which allows me to open up in ways I did not think possible for me. The coaching process has impacted my life in so many wonderful ways. I have forgiven myself for mistakes I made in my life as well as starting to genuinely love and value myself. 

"Being able to explore my relationship with my family, my community and my cultural beliefs and practices has been life changing. I feel a sense of peace and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I do not have the sense that time is continuously slipping away. My relationship with my family is in a very good place which I am extremely grateful for.

I am feeling optimistic about life and excited about living my life from this new perspective. 

"Thank you for your support and believing in me and my potential, even when I did not.”


*** Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Michelle Edwards is a fully certified Ontological Coach as well as an ICF Professional Credential Coach. Michelle has been active in her coaching practice for more than seven years, facilitating workshops and coaching people in the corporate, political, non-profit and private sectors. As a skilled ontological practitioner, she also co-facilitates the three-day Ontological Coaching and Leadership in Action workshops in Johannesburg with Julia Bonadei. Michelle can be contacted at and, as well as +27 731791159.



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