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Coaching Ontologically

Last week I had a call with a potential coachee. He was talking to multiple coaches to decide which one would be the best fit for his journey. Early in the conversation, he said, “You describe yourself as an ontological coach – what exactly is that?”

The question took me by surprise. Although I reference my ontological coaching experience on my website and LinkedIn, I typically describe myself as an executive or leadership coach. The term “ontological” is not widely used and often complicates the discussion. 

The next emotion I felt was relief. I realized the question put me at ease. I could be my most authentic self in this conversation. Yes, I am an executive coach and deliver an experience similar to other executive coaches in the industry. But at my core, I am an ontological coach. My coachees unlock their most powerful learning when we dig into my bag of ontological coaching techniques.

I often work with someone for six sessions or more before we start exploring ontological coaching. This potential coachee had fast-tracked that process. Today, I want to build upon that discussion and share what makes ontological coaching powerful.

Ontology

Ontological. It’s a big word. I love the word and what it represents, but I worry I come across as academic when I throw around a term like that. My short definition is, “Ontology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being.” 

Here’s a more descriptive definition from ChatGPT:

Ontology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the study of being or existence. It is concerned with understanding the nature, classification, and relationships of entities and their properties within a particular domain. In other words, ontology explores what types of things exist, how they can be grouped, and how they relate to one another. 

So when we bring ontology into the coaching space, we examine your Way of Being. How you show up in the world, how you perceive it, how you relate to it, and how to shift that Way of Being when desired.

Coaching Ontologically

I studied ontological coaching at the Newfield Network.* At the heart of ontological coaching is a model we call the OAR model:

  • Observer
  • Actions
  • Results
The OAR model

You are the observer. Your Way of Being is the coherence of three components:

  • Language – what you think and say
  • Moods and Emotions – how you feel, both in the moment (emotion) and over an extended period (mood)
  • Body – how you hold your body and the messages it sends you

You see a particular set of actions or possibilities based on your Way of Being. When you choose an action, you produce a result.

When you aren’t happy with the result, you try a different action. We call this first-order learning. In their book Immunity to Change, Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan call this a technical change. Technical changes are easy – you try a different action from the list of ideas you already had.

Often first-order learning solves our needs. After a few rounds of trial-and-error, we eventually learn which possible action is best for the job at hand. You have been doing this your entire life. As you’ve done this, your brain has learned the best actions and hard-wired itself to take certain actions without needing conscious thought.

And that’s where ontological coaching comes in.

Sometimes technical changes don’t cut it. We find ourselves stuck. Out of ideas. We don’t see any possible actions that can produce the results we are looking for.

When this happens, we need to generate an ontological shift. We must do more profound work to shift our Way of Being and open up new possible actions. In ontological coaching, we call this second-order learning. Lahey and Kegan call it an adaptive change.

We do this by examining our language, emotions, and somatics (the body). By making a shift in one or more of these areas, we shift our perspective, and new possibilities arise that we didn’t see before.

Why It Works

The Newfield Network has been teaching ontological coaching techniques for decades. At times, those techniques can feel a bit mystical. It can be hard to fathom how simply shifting your body to a different posture can change your mood, the thoughts in your head, and the words that come out of your mouth. Hard to fathom until you experience it first-hand.

Neuroscience is beginning to explain why this works. I mentioned earlier that our brains are hard-wiring our neurons to respond in certain ways when a particular scenario presents itself. This is your Way of Being. If you grew up being told you were no good at math and heard that enough times, you likely took as little math as possible to finish school and avoided classes and professions that relied on math. Your brain built a mental model that math is something you should avoid.

Up until recently, the consensus was that our brains were done developing somewhere around age 25. At that point, they were done growing and would hold steady and eventually decline as we grew older. Now, we know differently. We have neuroplasticity. Our brains continue to create new neural connections and prune away old ones throughout our lives as we learn new things and adapt our Way of Being.

When the programming in our brain has become ingrained to the point that our reaction is automatic, we need to generate an ontological shift to disrupt that programming, tell our brains to stop running on autopilot, and start building new neural connections. 

This is why mindfulness is so important. When you grow your awareness and mindfulness, it will be easier to recognize when your brain is on autopilot and interrupt it before it acts. That is your Way of Being, and a coach can help you shift it.

Some Examples

Whether you realize it or not, I’ve shared ontological concepts throughout many posts on this blog. Here are some highlights.

Way of Being

  • Shifting Perspectives – One of my favorite techniques to help shift your Way of Being.
  • We Can Do Hard Things – Understanding the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset. You need a growth mindset to shift your Way of Being.

Language

  • Just the Facts – The distinction between Assessments (our stories and beliefs) and Assertions (facts). We often treat our stories as if they were facts.
  • I Do Declare – The importance of Declarations and how to use them effectively.
  • Delegation 102 and Promises, Promises – Making effective Requests and managing your Promises.

Moods and Emotions

Somatics (the body)

This area is conspicuously absent from my blogs to date. I commit to changing that in the near future. For now, I offer this simple tip. Move your body if you want to shift your perspective and generate new ideas. Go for a walk. Or a run. Or a bike ride. Or dance. Or wave your arms around. This is useful for shifting your mood, too. It is tough to remain angry while dancing for any length of time.

Putting It Into Practice

Pay attention to your Way of Being.

  • What are the patterns in your thoughts and the things you say?
  • Are you aware of your moods and emotions? 
  • What happens when you change how you hold your body? Shift your posture? Go for a walk?

Review the blog posts above to deepen your understanding of ontological techniques. If you want to explore further, schedule time with Josh.

Want to comment? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

* The link provided is my referral link for Newfield. If you want to learn more about Newfield, please get in touch with me.