top of page
  • Helen Woodward and Idot Wong

Ontology and Second-Order Learning

By Helen Woodward and Idot Wong


I am delighted to share the thoughts and experiences of two of my ontological colleagues, Helen Woodward from Bury in the UK and Idot Wong from Hong Kong, currently living in Shanghai, China, on the concept and lived experience of second-order learning.

Second-order learning is one of the hallmarks of the ontological approach to life, coaching and leadership. The essence of second-order learning consists of developing the twofold skilful practice of:

  • observing or noticing our Way of Being and how this inevitably shapes our behaviour; and

  • changing or shifting our Way of Being to improve the quality of our thinking, behaviour and communication.

Helen writes ...

I borrowed Volume I of Alan Sieler's Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change, having seen it on a friend's bookshelf in 2017. This was my introduction to ontological coaching. Alan writes about our 'Way of Being’, the dynamic interplay between three spheres of human existence - language, emotions and body. The proposal is that for deep and lasting change to take place, ‘shift’ is needed in all three domains. All of this begins with ‘'noticing’. The following quotation from R. D. Laing brilliantly captures idea of ‘noticing’ which is applied in the ontological approach to learning and change:

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

It sounds so simple. The practice is challenging. Alan offers an Ontological Coaching and Leadership in Action three-day workshop, and an in-depth coach training and leadership development program, that brings the theory to life through, listening, discussion and practice. This enables everyone to develop deeper awareness about their own 'Way of Being' and prepares you to more effectively work with coaching clients.

Idot writes ...

Intellectually I can make sense of the concept of ‘second-order learning’, which is the observation of our Way of Being, as shown up in our language, emotions and body, and how that impacts our interaction with the world. What is new to me is what I assess as how I experience this second order-learning, not just intellectually but also viscerally. There was even a split second that I felt detached from myself and observed like a third party. It felt like I was in a trance, it’s surreal. But as soon as I realised it, it’s gone. The trance perhaps was an extreme moment of my second-order learning.

The importance to me is that I experienced a way that opens up more space for observation and learning. In that experience. I can detach my ‘ownership’ of this body or experience and observe ‘it’ neutrally from the perspective of a third party, like an anthropologist, or an extra-terrestrial visitor. With that perspective, I can now appreciate the concept of emotions and language as ‘processes’ which run in the human body as part of the existence. They are not something that are independent of our existence. They are processes that are integral for our existence. They are the existence, the ‘being’. They are manifestations of the ‘Way of Being’. Language, emotions and body are one, as they are different facades of the same being.

Second-order observation is about how the Way of Being is showing up or manifested, how it preserves and transforms, when it is triggered by perturbances in the drift of existence. It is about the observation of my existence and my interaction with others and the outer world.

How did it happen?

Instead of asking ‘What is going on with me?’, I tweaked the question a bit to ‘What is going on with this human being who happens to be me?’ This question invites me to observe at a vantage point detached from the person I am, like observing a fish swimming in the tank. What is going on with the fish? What do I notice? It just happens that this is me, so I also have access to the processes that are running inside this person, such as the inner voices, emotions, body sensations etc.

What have I learned?

It seems to be a bit clearer to me the difference between the experience of first-order learning and second-order learning. First-order learning is more about the reasoning and meaning making of my actions and the consequences. Second-order learning is the understanding of how those reasoning and meaning-making processes, together with the associated emotional and physical processes, play together to enact the subsequent responses and actions internally and externally. This learning is referred to as second-order because it happens at different level of observation and reflection.

Previously I found the language and writing of ontological coaching a bit strange, and now I realise that I was trying to interpret them with a first-order understanding. At that level I do not have the vantage point to appreciate ontological views or claims like ‘emotions are processes’, ‘human beings with an already listening waiting to be triggered’. I could understand every word but could not make sense of the difference of such expressions and the layman language.

Now I can understand that the ontological language is based upon a different frame of reference, which is associated with second-order observation. It represents a vantage point of the observer at a different level.

The linguistic distinctions of second-order observation generates a different space, a distance with the existence being observed, almost like I am in a lab studying a living organism:

What shows up? What is going on? What are the concerns that she is trying to take care of? How are the emotional processes mobilizing her Way of Being from one state to another? What is the already listening that shapes the message being interpreted the way it is now, and what are the social and historical context that have shaped this already listening?

A case of learning applied

One evening, I had an argument with my husband, and I got very emotional. When I went to bed, I could still feel the emotions (I felt hurt and I was in tears) and heard narratives running in my head. At the same time, I was also observing myself at a second level. I asked myself what’s going on with me, what are the assessments that I am having, what are the standards behind the assessments, what are the concerns that I am trying to take care of, etc.

Then later I could see that I was upset not so much because of what he did or said, but because of the stories I had gathered from the history of my parents’ relationship and my interpretation of meaning and implications of some actions in a marriage. It was not so much about him but about myself. His actions perturbed me and I triggered the meaning and interpretations in my already listening. And I realised the core concern that I wanted to take care of behind the defence of my already listening.

With that learning at the second level, I still experienced being emotional at the first level. Like both experiences were running in parallel. But I told myself that the emotions needed to be released, at the first order, so I let it be. However, with the second-order learning, my interpretation of what happened has changed. I do not blame him with the blind expectations and judgments in my already listening, but instead I am more curious to look for ways to communicate and coordinate actions with him to take care of the core concern that I unraveled, and slowly I also seek to listen to his concerns with more openness.

** Helen Woodward is a respected coach, consultant and facilitator both in the UK and internationally, and an adviser at Zen Educate. Helen can be contacted at or

** Idot Wong is a Shanghai based coach and facilitator and can be contacted at

Related Posts

See All

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 b

Is there hope for hope? Part II

By Alan Sieler Briefly revisiting passive and active hope From Part I of this article you may recall the important distinction between passive and active hope. To help refresh this distinction, here i


bottom of page