Coaching To The Human Soul Vol. 1
Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume 1 is the first of a four-volume exploration of ontological coaching. It is technical and written for coaches and those interested in the theoretical and professional application of ontological coaching. It is a tremendous contribution to the field, and it is unfortunate that it is not more widely (and inexpensively) available in the rest of the world. Currently, all four volumes must be ordered and mailed from Australia.
There are many different coaching methodologies. Ontological coaching has proven to be one of the more powerful coaching methods to affect deep and lasting change in people. Curiously, it draws not from psychology but philosophy, linguistics, and the biology of cognition.
In essence, ontological coaching holds that humans have a “way of being” that shapes our behavior and how we interact with ourselves and the outer world. Our way of being is composed of three ontological domains:
- Linguistic: We use language to construct our reality and to engage other people;
- Emotional: Our feelings and moods influence how we see the world and cause us to act/behave in certain ways;
- Physiological: We engage the world through our bodies—how we hold ourselves impacts our moods and how we interact with the world.
Changes or shifts in all three of these domains are required to make deep change in a person. Other coaching methodologies teach behavioral strategies to produce change. Ontological coaching argues that patching a new strategy on an unchanged way of being will not result in lasting or significant change. If you are timid speaking in public, for example, learning how to give a better PowerPoint won’t make you a better speaker. You must shift the way of being that is causing the timidity.
Volume 1 focuses exclusively on the linguistic domain. Volumes 2 and 3 investigate the remaining domains; the final volume explores the “art” of coaching.
Language includes both the speaking and the listening of it. A person’s “listening” includes hearing or being aware of the words being spoken, the non-verbal cues the speaker is broadcasting, the listener’s internal conversation, conscious and unconscious prejudices, the cultural and historical context, and any number of other factors that filter and shape and give meaning to the speaker’s spoken words.
In other words, the meaning that the speaker is trying to convey (assuming they are fully aware of their internal conversations, historical contexts, and unconscious assumptions) is unlikely to be the meaning that the listener hears.
A coach, then, has two tasks. The first is to listen to deeper meanings below the spoken words of a client. What is the client’s reality? What is the client’s unspoken assumptions about the world, about themselves, and others? The coach’s second task is to be clinically aware of their listening, assumptions, and interpretations so that none of the coach’s “stuff” gets inserted or smeared onto the client’s.
Neither task is easy, but both are essential to expanding the awareness and power of the client.
Concerns and the use of language
People use language to address concerns that they have. The word “concerns” is meant very broadly here to include everything of interest to a person. It’s an important concept as it serves to focus an ontological coach’s listening: what is the concern that a client is seeking to take care of? The coach must also be sensitive to the possibility that a client may be trying to address concerns that they are not consciously aware of.
Within the context of concerns then, a client uses language to:
- Tell people how things are
- Get people to do things
- Commit themselves to do things
- Express their feelings and attitudes
- Bring about changes in the world
Language consists of six linguistic acts. An act is a linguistic construct designed to accomplish or fulfill a specific function or concern. The six are:
- Assertions specify facts and other items of truth in the world. “This ball is blue” is an assertion.
- Declarations bring about change in the world. Used ontologically, declarations generate reality. “I will go to the store and buy a gallon of milk” is a declaration. So is, “I will end world hunger.”
- Assessments communicate an opinion or judgments. “He is a bad manager” is an example. But note the difference here between an assertion and an assessment. “He is hitting his wife” is an assertion but “He is abusing his wife” is an assessment. The first is factual the second is a judgment of his action.
- Requests are the linguistic tool we use to ask other people to do things for us. “Would you pass the salt and pepper, please”?
- Offers are the tool we use to do things for others. “May I open the door for you”?
- Promises commit us to doing something for others.
There are variations and subcategories in all of these, but the above six linguistic acts perform the essential functions humans use to live and work with others. In ontological coaching, mastering these six acts enables a coach to understand how a client is constructing their reality, working to get their concerns met, and coaching clients to be more linguistically adept and thus effective in meeting their concerns.
Linguistic acts, of course, happen within conversations. Our conversations are shaped by our ways of being and they significantly influence the results we have in taking care of our concerns. The line of causality goes both ways—our results can influence our conversations which, in turn, shape our ways of being. In any case, powerful conversations are critical to our living good and satisfying lives.
Conversations are classed by function.
- Assessment: to share opinions, judgments, and to tell stories;
- Clarity: to ensure mutual understanding;
- Possible actions: these are speculative as the action hasn’t happened yet;
- Coordinating actions: acting on and reviewing actions taken in response to requests;
- Accomplishment: after the action has taken place;
- Possible conversations: conversations to make other conversations happen;
- Relationships: we create our relationships through conversation.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it covers most types of conversations.
The skill with which we converse and use the six linguistic acts significantly impacts our ability to meet our concerns in life.
Stories are a type of conversation—but they are more than “just” a conversation. They provide a deep framework for our lives. We live in stories. We share stories across our communities (think, for example, of the founding of the United States—a story shared by Americans), our families (our family came to this country in 1896, passed through Ellis Island, etc.), and our personal stories (I am this way because of this event—and so on). In Sieler’s words, stories form the “linguistic tapestry” of our humanness.
Stories are how we give meaning to the world we inhabit; they provide us with a rich mesh of meaning—meaning which we mistake for reality. Consequently, we don’t exist in the world as it is—but in a story that we, our history and culture have made up about the world.
These stories can be liberating (“girls can be anything they want to be”) or imprisoning (“girls belong in the kitchen”). An ontological coach’s job is to distinguish a client’s stories and the impact they have on their life. Then support the client in rewriting their stories so that they are more effective at achieving their goals.
Language, conversations, and stories: Their importance to ontological coaching
Language is a technology devised to enable us to address our concerns. The degree to which we are skillful in the use of language, conversations, and stories is the degree to which we are more successful in fulfilling our concerns.
An ontological coach can help a client be more linguistically skillful and thus get their needs more readily met. But there’s a far more important aspect of language. It’s with language that we construct our reality—and we construct our reality such that it addresses our concerns. By listening to a client, a coach can understand the client’s reality (really, the client’s understanding and interpretation of reality) and note how that construction may limit or hinder the client’s ability to address their concerns.
For example, people frequently speak of wanting to change their mindsets. What is a mindset? It is essentially a construct created with language that defines that person’s understanding of the world; that is, their reality. A common mindset is “I’m not good enough”. This is a linguistic construct that the person assumes is true (i.e. is real), but is, in fact, an assessment—linguistic act #3 above—and not true. Nevertheless, when a client operates as if this assessment were true, it limits their ability to engage the outer world—or to take care of their concerns (e.g. “I want to be the CEO”.)
Changing how a client has linguistically constructed their reality causes a shift in the linguistic domain of the client’s way of being. When the client’s perception of reality shifts, the actions available to them also shift. If the person’s perceptual shift is empowering (e.g. from “girls belong in the kitchen”, to “girls can do anything”), the person will be better able meet to their concerns.
Sieler makes the argument that humans are in the world to address their concerns—these can be physical concerns (safety, hunger, shelter) or psychological (dignity, legitimacy, respect) or spiritual (sense of oneness, awe, relationship to God) and I acknowledge those, however, there are a small handful of concerns that he does not acknowledge which I see as being fundamental to a person’s relationship to themselves and the world. If these concerns are not superseded, the person is stuck in a low level of existence and will likely cause suffering to themselves and those around them.
As I see it, people—fundamentally—want the world (e.g. other people, themselves, God, the weather, etc.) to work the way they want it to; people want their way. Secondarily, they (we, of course) want:
- To be right, to win or dominate;
- To be liked, accepted, to have status and be respected;
- Money and possessions;
- To not take responsibility for themselves (i.e. to be a victim), and;
- To avoid painful or uncomfortable feelings.
These concerns, which are baked into us as human beings, alienate us from our souls; they prevent us from loving, from being intimate, from compassion, from being transfixed by beauty or the divine. Consequently, when we are driven by these concerns, we diminish our power, freedom, and ability to be authentically in the world.
As an ontological coach, it is important to surface these concerns—and then ask the client if these are the concerns they want to be living for. If not, then the coach works with the client to move past them.
As a discipline, ontological coaching is new, and it draws from many different philosophical, linguistic, and biological sources. Sieler’s volumes are the only source that brings all the different theoretical threads of ontological coaching together. Their value is increased by Sieler’s expertise as a coach—he is able to demonstrate how the theory can be deployed in practice. For a coach wishing to be theoretically grounded and proficient in the field, these volumes are essential.