What Is So Special About Ontological Coaching?
The ontological approach
The essence of an ontological approach to life, coaching and leadership is about becoming a different and more powerful Observer. The meaning of power in this context is the ability to take more effective action in order to live a more mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually enriched life, in which we can contribute more to others and the betterment of the world.
We can only participate in a world that we observe and how we observe is generated from our Way of Being. The ontological approach focuses on the potential for transforming our Way of Being, which includes its expansion and deepening, as a path to participating in a more meaningful and fulfilling manner in everyday life.
The 18-month Certified Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program (COCLP) has been running since 1999 in Australia, Asia, South Africa, Europe, the UK and the USA. Hundreds of graduates are active as qualified ontological coaches and practitioners on five continents.
“This course is not simply a coaching course or a leadership course. It is an experience in wisdom. I have walked away from this course with more than only ‘knowing’ about coaching or leadership. I apply my ontological learning to every aspect of my personal and professional life on a daily basis. Through the papers, the opportunities, and an incredibly patient and supportive approach from those who lead it, this course has given me so much, whilst simultaneously preparing me for so much more. It is not only an in-depth coaching course; it is a course that could very easily, significantly and permanently change society’s understanding of how leadership and life can be approached”.
Deanne Duncombe, IT Manager, Canberra, Australia
Variously described as “the gold standard of coaching” and “profoundly transformational”, Ontological Coaching has developed an enviable global reputation for being at the cutting edge of coaching practice. As a robust and rigorous coaching methodology Ontological Coaching is powerful framework for navigating the often uncertain, disruptive and ambiguous nature of everyday life. These are big claims and, as we know, big claims can be hollow so it is worth outlining the basis for these claims.
Ontological Coaching is unique, and therefore stands out as being distinctively different from other approaches to coaching. The uniqueness of Ontological Coaching can be captured in sixteen key points under a number of headings.
Holistic and integral
1. Ontological Coaching addresses, and provides a way to make sense of, the multi-dimensional nature of humans as biological, linguistic, emotional, somatic, cultural, historical and spiritual beings.
2. Ontology is the study of being and Ontological Coaching focuses on Way of Being as the avenue to deep and sustainable behavioural change. Way of Being is the underlying driver of our behaviour and communication and is where our perceptions and attitudes live, many of which can be restricting us but are deep-seated and out-of-awareness.
3. Ontological Coaching is an explicitly holistic approach to what is required for sustainable change, working with the integration of language, emotions and body that comprise a client’s Way of Being. Language, emotions and body are each areas of learning and change and there must be shifts in all three areas for change to endure.
4. Language: Ontology has a different and deeper approach to language, working from the premise that language is central to how reality is generated. Humans are languaging beings that continually create what is real for them by the specific ways they do and do not engage in language. An ontological coach supports clients to identify different ways of participating in language to generate more constructive realities.
5. Emotions and moods: Ontological Coaching places great emphasis on the crucial importance of moods as often deep, subtle and powerful aspects of our emotional existence. The application of a unique framework of specific mood, which enables clients to develop more helpful moods and therefore develop more constructive perceptions and behaviours. The power of moods is that they continually shape perception and behaviour and they are at the heart of our wellbeing and the cornerstone of our relationships. Understanding and applying a unique framework of some basic and universal moods enables clients to experience more helpful moods, thereby developing more constructive perceptions and behaviours.
6. Body and physicality: Another important premise is that the body (postural alignment, muscle tension and breathing) plays a crucial role in perception, learning and change. Respectfully coaching to the body typically opens up significant new insights for clients that are highly unlikely to occur through language or emotions. Long-standing moods and entrenched unhelpful beliefs are embodied, so while clients may change at an intellectual level, this will not be sustainable unless the body changes.
“This coaching and leadership course has been profound and transformative for me personally and professionally. It is a challenging task to put into words something that has been so transformative. I am a much more powerful observer in so many aspects of my life. As a husband and father, I have become a more compassionate and loving man and I am far less angry and judgmental. As a family physician with 20 years of experience, I have learned how to listen to my patients in a profoundly new way, to help them accept what is, and to reach for what could be, more effectively than ever before. I am extremely grateful for the experience and the possibilities this course has opened up for me and very excited about the different future I am creating.” Jim Theis, MD, New Orleans, USA
7. Biology: An ontological coach honours four fundamental aspects of human biology.
the nervous system is that part of our biology that is responsible for our perception and behaviour;
all learning and change occur in the nervous system;
humans are biological beings that can only change themselves, meaning that the primary responsibility of the coach is to co-create a relational context that enables clients to self-generate change; and
a fundamental biological law that all change revolves around what is to be conserved or maintained. Clients are more open to change when they are reassured that vital things that matter to them will not be compromised.
8. Culture and history: Humans always exist in a cultural-historical context that defines the space of what is possible and not possible for them. It is essential that the coach is attentive to the “cultural fit” of desired change to ensure that the client is able to engage more constructively in their cultural-historical setting.
9. Conversations and commitments: Humans are conversational beings that get things done and create the future together. How well people relate with each other, coordinate and cooperate and get things done is greatly influenced by how effectively they engage in conversations and commitments; this is a fundamental business process. A central part of the coaching methodology is:
understanding that there is a wide range of different types of conversations;
appropriate engagement with different types of conversations; and
how to effectively make and manage commitments.
“The Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program has been a rigorous learning journey and a life-changing experience. My ability as a coach has been greatly enhanced and I believe I have something of great value to offer my clients. I am grateful to my wonderful teacher, Alan Sieler, who is an incredible source of knowledge, wisdom, humility and warm humanity. I am grateful for the intellectual rigour, and the shifts in my way of being - all three domains of it - my language, moods and emotions and my body.” Getti Mercorio, Executive Coach, Johannesburg, South Africa
Strong theoretical and methodological foundation
10. Ontological Coaching rests on a robust theoretical foundation that combines biology of cognition, philosophy of language, existential action philosophy, philosophy of emotions and philosophy of the body. Each of these academic disciplines generated breakthrough thinking during the 20th century from which emerged a new practical understanding of how humans function, learn and change.
11. The theoretical basis of Ontological Coaching means that it is a deeply grounded non-psychologically based approach to perceptual and behavioural change.
12. With a strong theoretical basis Ontological Coaching has an extensive set of unique concepts and models, which are referred to as distinctions (for example, basic linguistic acts, types of conversations, some basic moods of life, somatic patterns) that are easily applicable for any coaching client.
“The Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program is one of the best and most intense programs I have done so far. It is valuable for every coach and trainer and provides helpful concepts, methods and techniques. Especially the concept of our way of being, helped me to develop myself and my way of coaching. I can’t imagine to not work on all three levels (language, body and emotions) anymore. For people who are motivated and willing to study and to practice every week, this is the program I would recommend. It will change your life and it will help you to become more successful in whatever you want to achieve.” Stefanie Thies, Executive Coach and Coach Trainer, Düsseldorf, Germany
13. Paradoxically, Ontological Coaching is much more than a coaching methodology for one-to-one interventions. The ontological approach offers five simultaneous methodologies:
a uniquely powerful coaching methodology;
a personal development methodology (through self-coaching);
a leadership methodology (the only place leaders can lead from is their Way of Being, which is the primary means of developing constructive conversations to positively influence others and build trusting relationships that produce desired business outcomes);
a methodology for building high-performance teams (teams function and accomplish required outcomes through conversations; successful teams skilfully using language, moods and body language to effectively coordinate action);
a business improvement methodology (the ontological perspective on business improvement and successful organisational interventions has been the subject of articles in the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review).
14. Ontological Coaching goes beyond coaching only from a script of questions or a set of techniques. Based on an extensive repertoire of applicable ideas and distinctions ontological coaches have acute observational and listening skills. This positions them to be responsibly inventive in the design of powerful questions and the sharing of ontological perspectives that are relevant to the client’s requirements.
15. High quality coaching requires the coach to be a continual learner, especially a continual ontological learner, which is essential for living well and adapting to continually unpredictable and changing circumstances. Ontology has a unique approach to understanding what it is to be a learner. Learning to be a learner involves understanding how our Way of Being can inadvertently block us and our clients from learning. Ontological coaches continually seek to develop a more helpful Way of Being that enhances their coaching effectiveness.
16. Finally, what is unique about Ontological Coaching is the practical awareness of how coaching in general, and Ontological Coaching in particular, is historically situated, and why ontological learning is especially relevant in the uncertain, unpredictable and often disruptive times that seem to characterise much of contemporary life.
This is an extensive list of points that can open up a space for further consideration. You are encouraged to be aware of what most stands out to you from the list and, when you are ready, return to re-read other points. You might like to allow yourself to reflect on these and to further appreciate the distinctive nature of Ontological Coaching.
“I cannot begin to describe the impact this course has had on me – it is profound! The timing was impeccable given my redundancy that occurred just a few weeks prior to our first workshop. The distinctions and learnings have been an important accompaniment to my significant shift from corporate life to running my own business – and helped me better respond to the various breakdowns that happened along the way. , it is mind-blowing to look back over the past 18 months and acknowledge all the changes that have occurred in my life. This has included setting up my own business, training to be a yoga instructor, running corporate leadership training programs, team coaching, personal coaching, executive coaching.” Virginia Morris, Corporate Consultant and Leadership Coach, Hong Kong
In conclusion, some questions that it might be useful to contemplate are:
What is your mood, having read this paper?
What thoughts are associated with your mood?
What do you notice about your physiological response to the paper?
What further actions would you like to consider?
What questions would you like to explore?
How do you imagine that Ontological Coaching can contribute to your life?
In what specific areas of your life could Ontological Coaching be helpful?
** My thanks to Karen White and Ron Kaufman for their helpful suggestions.
Details of the Certified Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program can be found here.
“This is undoubtedly the best investment I have ever made in my career and life generally. The Ontological Coaching and Leadership Program has supported me end-to-end through a massive transition in my life circumstances and way of being, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have participated in such a profoundly meaningful program. It is extremely gratifying to see the positive impact that the ontological approach has had on my clients in the relatively short time that I have been applying it.” Chyonne Kreltszheim, Executive Coach, Melbourne, Australia
“The Ontological Coaching program is built on a solid theoretical foundation and the combined approach of working with language, emotions & the body has transformed my approach to coaching. The experience will change your life and open up an enriching opportunity of exploration and development. Not only is it helping my business by bringing in some original ideas …. It’s changing my way of being and its opening up new long-term career development options.” Andrew Shea, Executive Coach and Corporate Trainer, Cork, Ireland
“The significant shifts I gained from my experience of the course are a deeper sense of confidence with which I facilitate a training, the ease in taking on new projects and engaging with new people, as well as a general willingness to take care of my health.” Ching Meoh Cheong, Corporate Trainer and Facilitator and Executive Coach, Singapore
“I had been coaching for 15 years, and yet the value I gained from the 18-month program was profound and transformational. I learned a great deal about my own way of being. Adding ontological elements to my coaching methodology has deepened my ability to serve my clients and has led to transformational changes in their lives, and mine.” Jenny Hoggarth, Executive Coach, Johannesburg, South Africa
“Through transformational learning the Ontological Coaching program takes coaching to a different level. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about learning until I stepped into my own transformational learning journey. This program opened me up to rich spaces for learning that I can’t even begin to measure or describe here. It is eloquently designed, with a balanced combination of theory and practical application. Alan Sieler and his highly skilled colleagues make learning sheer joy. As a different observer I am far more resourceful to coachees and other clients.” Jeanette Mundy, Organisational Development Facilitator and Executive Coach, Brisbane, Australia
“My intention for engaging in the Ontological Coaching program was to enhance my ability as an executive coach. My expectations have been far exceeded and the learning has proven to be applicable at a much broader level. As an executive coach and trainer, it has provided me with insights into how I can work more effectively to assist clients in dealing with change. The program content has given me the depth of knowledge to feel both confident and comfortable in dealing with any level of coaching client or challenging situation.” Oliver Love, Director and Executive Coach, CFT Asia, Hong Kong
“I could write a book about the changes that have happened for me in doing this program! I have a new framework for living / for life; this has been most profound in my leadership work in education. I now coach, I now build capacity in others and it is powerful. I see, feel and experience the difference it makes.” Neville Powles, Secondary College Principal, Victoria, Australia
“I have found Ontological Coaching extraordinarily powerful for building and sustaining quality relationships. My relationships have improved massively in all spheres of my life and this is a huge value-add for me! I know this comes from being more legitimate in my own being and also regarding others as legitimate others who hold different (but equally valid) worldviews. I keep thinking of the central principle of care, dignity and legitimacy that characterises Ontological Coaching as being indispensable for any relationship.” Julia Bonadei-Thorns, Executive Coach and Coach Trainer, Johannesburg, South Africa
This program far and away exceeded my expectations. My reason for signing up was to do some work on generating a more coherent theoretical foundation to my coaching work. The course delivered this to a really high level with significant practical and life-changing applications. The dimension I had not anticipated but that I will be forever grateful for is the personal healing, renewal and transformation that I experienced throughout the program. I really, honestly never thought I could experience life at such a deeply peaceful and joyful level. Ian Lees, Executive Coach and Corporate Facilitator, Sydney, Australia