Ontology: A Theoretical Basis for Professional Coaching
Paper presented at The First Australian Conference on Evidenced-Based
Coaching at the University of Sydney, Australia on July 7-8, 2003
If coaching is to gain credibility as a profession, it is essential
that coaching practice be informed by rigorous and substantive
The discipline of Ontology, which has emerged from the integration
of significant 20th century developments in the biology of cognition,
existential philosophy, and the philosophy of language, provides
a sound and substantive theoretical basis for professional coaching.
The theory and methodology of Ontological Coaching enables a coach
to observe and work constructively with three essential domains
of human existence — language, emotions and body — as a means for
supporting coaching clients to develop important new perspectives
that generate more effective behaviours.
Theory and Professional Coaching
According to an ancient Chinese expression, “Theory without practice
is foolish; practice without theory is dangerous”.
One of the key features of a profession is that the work of its
practitioners is based on a coherent methodology that is grounded
in an established and accepted body of knowledge.1
If coaching is to move from being an industry to become a profession,
the training and accreditation of coaches must include a substantive,
robust and accessible theoretical component, which clearly informs
the method and practice of coaching.
Ontology provides a rigorous and substantive theoretical framework
for the development of professional coaches. Ontology is the study
of being. According to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “Ontology
is … the science of being in general, embracing such issues as the
nature of existence and the structure of reality.”2 Major developments in biology and philosophy in
the 20th century have resulted in Ontology providing
a deeply grounded view of human life, which is the basis of a specific
approach to coaching, called Ontological Coaching.
According to psychologist Suzanne Skiffington, “existential issues,
such as identifying purpose and meaning in life, alleviating suffering
and enabling the individual to live a more fulfilled and joyful
life, are central to the coaching process.”3 From an ontological perspective, coaches observe
and work with key aspects of how clients (coachees) have structured
their reality and the nature of their existence, ie, their perceptions
and ways of participating in life. This is done by observing key
aspects of their being, or more precisely their Way of Being. As
a skilful practitioner, an ontological coach is able to:
- develop a sound understanding of what aspects of the coachee’s
Way of Being are generating an unhelpful reality, and
- support the coachee to develop a more constructive reality
that will lead to positive changes in his or her world.
A New Discipline for Coaching
Ontology dates back as far as the philosophers of Ancient Greece.
However, it was major developments in the 20th century
in philosophy and biology, as well as anthropology, sociology and
quantum physics, which provided the rigorous academic underpinning
for the development of Ontology as a discipline for professional
Significant developments in the biology of cognition, existential
philosophy and the philosophy of language, have generated a new
understanding of human beings and human interaction, including the
nature of human perception, communication and behaviour. These developments
have been integrated to form a new field of knowledge, called “Ontology
of the Human Observer”, as a discipline for professional coaching.
Fernando Flores is the key figure in the formation of the discipline.
He completed a multi-disciplinary doctoral thesis, entitled Management
and Communication in the Office of the Future, at the Berkeley campus
of the University of California.
<p >Flores was greatly influenced by the novel, yet biologically grounded,
ideas of Humberto Maturuan on perception, cognition, language and
communication. These conversations were a key inspiration for his
research, in which he particularly focused on the existential philosophy
of Martin Heidegger4
and John Searle’s Theory of Speech Acts.
Flores was able to integrate the ideas of Maturana, Heidegger and
Searle to produce a new understanding of language and communication,
which eventually became a discipline for professional coaching.6
The Biology of Cognition
Humberto Maturana’s research on the nature of perception provides
the biological grounding for Ontological Coaching. His research
findings in the neurophysiology of vision led him to question the
commonsense understanding of perception (apprehending and representing
the objectivity reality of the world), which, in turn, resulted
in the development of a theory of living systems, language and cognition.
Some of the fundamental concepts in his theory are: the observer,
nervous system, structural determinism, perturb, structural coupling,
cognition, distinctions, consensual domains, languaging and emotioning.
A key aspect of Maturana’s theory is the notion of “The Observer”.
What is observed depends on the observer.8 According to Maturana, the world any of us knows
as an observer depends on the interactions between the neurons of
our nervous system. Put in another way, it is the structure of our
nervous system that primarily determines at any point in time what
is reality for us (individually and collectively). Maturana argued
that perception must be studied from the inside, rather than the
outside, for the nervous system generates the phenomena that become
apparent and have existence for The Observer.
Humans, and other living systems, can be regarded as “structurally-determined
systems”, with the structure of our nervous system informing us
how to observe and respond the world (which includes not just the
physical world, but also the world of abstraction, and in particular
the world of possibility). Events and circumstances do not specify
how an organism will respond. For Maturana, events and circumstances
that are spatially separate from an organism perturb its nervous
system. However, it is not the external circumstances that primarily
determine the response of the organism. Rather, it is the structure
of the organism’s nervous system that primarily determines its response.
Maturana emphasises that the notion of structural determinism does
not mean a fixed and unchanging nervous system; the nervous system
has plasticity. Living systems are continually learning, adapting
and changing as new neuronal connections develop, changing the structure
of the nervous system and enabling different ways of observing and
behaving to be possible.
A vital part of the process of adaptation and survival of living
systems is interaction with their environment (medium), which includes
other living systems. Through their continual interaction, living
systems continually perturb each others’ nervous systems, a process
Maturana refers to as “structural coupling”. Living systems exist
in mutual influence with their environment, in which the structure
of their nervous systems is continually perturbed and altered to
shift how they are as observers. For Maturana, cognition is framed
in terms of actions and interactions, and cognition is integral
to the process of observing and living. “Living systems are cognitive
systems, and living, as a process is a process of cognition.”
The relevance of these key ideas to Ontological Coaching is
that the client (coachee) is limited by how they are observing
world, and that problems, possibilities and solutions exist in
the “eye of the beholder”. The essential role of the coach is
to provide a safe context for the coachee to learn new distinctions
how they are observing, enabling them to become a different and
more powerful observer (with power being interpreted as the capacity
to take effective action).
Maturana’s view of language is based on the notion of “consensual
domains”, in which observers share distinctions about observing
the world, and these are distinctions that occur in language. As
a consensual domain of human activity, language allows features
of the world to be distinguished, and for the development of shared
understanding. This is the essential basis for the development cooperation,
collaboration and coordination, which are essential in constructive
personal and professional relationships.
In addition to language being a vital feature of the structure
of the human nervous system, shaping how people observe the world
of actuality and possibility, Maturana also emphasised the role
of emotions and physiology. He coined the expressions “languaging”
and “emotioning” to indicate that language and emotions are processes
of living, which are integral features of perception and cognition.
He characterised emotions as dynamic
body dispositions and as relational behaviour.
Maturana’s views on language, emotions and physiology provide the
basis for the essential model and methodology of Ontological Coaching.
The structure of the human nervous system is regarded as a dynamic
interaction between three interrelated spheres of human existence
&151; language, emotions and body. In Ontological Coaching the inextricable
interrelationship between these three ontological domains is regarded
as way of being, shaping how the world is observed. Each domain
is an area of learning and change, with shifts in all three areas
being required to shift for lasting change in to occur.
<p >The application of the trilogy of language, emotions and body
in coaching is that the coach is an acute observer of how (i)
uses language, (ii) the emotional experience of the coachee, and
(iii) how the particular ways of languaging and emotioning are
in the coachee’s body. The role of the coach is to respectfully
inquire with the coachee about how shifts can occur in each domain
of language, emotions and body, to generate constructive new perspectives
that open new possibilities for effective action by the coachee.(See
example below, “Ontological Coaching in action”.)
Philosophy and the Linguistic Turn
There is a remarkable overlap between Maturana’s biologically-based
theory, and a major development that occurred in philosophy during
the 20th century. This development has been characterised as “the
linguistic turn”, its essence being that for humans language does
much more than describe the world. Language can be seen as an active
process that generates what constitutes reality for humans, and
when change occurs in the use of language, a different world becomes
available to the observer. It is interesting to note that the emergence
of the perspective that language plays an active role in the construction
of reality was not limited to philosophy. It is also evident in
the work of social psychologist George Herbert Mead,
Alfred Korzybski’s work on General Semantics,
Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy,14 as well as scholars of the sociology of knowledge.15
Different branches of philosophy contributed to this new understanding
of language. From Phenomenology and Hermeneutics came the idea that
thinking, understanding and acting are acts of interpretation, placing
interpretation at the heart of cognition. To participate and interact
with the world is continually a process of interpretation, occurring
in a cultural and historical context, which is essentially a process
of generating meaning. As philosopher Ken Wilber has commented,
“Humans seemed condemned to meaning, condemned to find value, depth,
care, concern, worth, significance to their everyday existence.”
All of this occurs in language. In short, interpretation is fundamental
to human existence, and this is fundamentally linguistic, as well
as being emotional and physiological.
One of the essential roles of an ontological coach is to support
the development of constructive change in the coachee’s interpretations,
for existing interpretations have generated a meaning about the
world that is restrictive and acts like a prison, limiting their
possibilities or potential.
Martin Heidegger was a major contributor to the linguistic turn.
He undertook a major inquiry into the question of being.17 Writing in German, he used the expression “Dasein”,
which means “Being-in-the world”. For Heidegger, human understanding
and existence was a lived practical existence. Understanding arose
from how people engaged in life, which especially includes the social
and conversational practices of their communities. Living is an
interpretive experience, with the habits, customs, beliefs and rituals
that form an integral feature of our daily individual and collective
existence, informing us how to engage with and participate in the
world. This inescapably involves language. Heidegger characterised
language as “the house of being” and stated that for humans there
is no way out of language. Who we are and who we become, individually
and collectively, is constituted in language.
Other significant contributions in the linguistic turn were from
Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Austin and John Searle.18 The essential ideas that emerged were that:
- language is a form of human action;
- language is an instrument for getting things done;
- language produces effects on participants (interlocuters)
and therefore impacts on what is reality for them;
- there are a number of fundamental ways that humans continually
use language to produce effects and generate reality, which are
referred to as Speech Acts.
<p >The idea that language generates reality is central to Ontological
Coaching. The notion of Speech Acts was developed into a model of
Basic Linguistic Acts, and is an important aspect of the methodology
of Ontological Coaching.19
The coach listens to particular ways the coachee is both using and
not using language, and how these may be limiting how he or she
is observing their circumstances. Change in language, especially
the use of Basic Linguistic Acts, can be the basis for the development
of more effective behaviour and communication, and the resolution
of problematic issues.
Philosophical Perspectives on Emotions
Philosopher Robert Solomon has commented that emotions are “intelligent,
cultivated, conceptually rich engagements with the world, not mere
reactions or instincts. … [E]motions are the meaning of life. It
is because we are moved, because we feel that life has meaning.”
Martin Heidegger emphasised the importance of moods in our interpretive
existence. “The foundation of any interpretation is an act of understanding,
which is always accompanied by a state-of-mind, or, in other words,
which has a mood.”21
Moods can be deep, invisible and enduring emotional states that
have a major impact on how the world is observed and engaged with.
For Heidegger moods are a “primordial kind of being”, and regarded
moods as a way of attuning ourselves to the world.
He captures the notion of moods as predispositions for action, when
he says they are a “making possible to direct oneself towards something.”
Our moods are an expression of our fundamental predispositions and
orientations in life. Mood discloses or reveals a particular world,
and this especially includes what actions and ways of engaging with
the world are and are not possible.
Based on the philosophy of Heidegger and Nietszche,24 a model called Some Basic Moods
of Life has been developed for Ontological Coaching. Working
moods can be essential for generating fundamental shifts in the
coachee’s habitual ways of observing and behaving, and the generation
of lasting positive change. The model provides the coach with key
distinctions to respectfully explore, understand and shift how the
coachee is restricted by some fundamental aspects of his or her
emotional existence. This includes the crucial importance of subtle
yet profound, shifts in the coachee’s static and moving posture.
<p >Philosophical perspectives on emotions have been reinforced by
the recent emergence of “Emotional Intelligence”, a concept developed
in psychology25 and popularised by Daniel Goleman.
26 Within neuroscience there has been an increasing
research focus on the impact of emotions on perception and behaviour,
and the development of a specialised area called “Affective Brain
Science”.27 Until his death in 2001, biologist Francesco
Varela, co-author with Maturana, was active in this area of scientific
Related Developments in Psychotherapy
Although Ontological Coaching is not psychotherapy, it is worthwhile
noting that similar developments in the utilisation of a new understanding
of language have occurred psychotherapy. In The Interpreted
Ernesto Spinelli draws on phenomenology and existential philosophy
to present an outline of phenomenological psychology and phenomenological
psychotherapy.29 Michael White, the developer of Narrative Therapy, has been prominent
in explicitly recognising the role of language in the client’s world.30
The biology of cognition has been utilised as a framework for Family
Therapy, with articles appearing in The Networker,
The Irish Journal of Psychology
and the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
Ontological Coaching in Action
Having outlined the essence of Ontology as a theoretical basis
for professional coaching, it is now appropriate to move to the
considering the application of the theory and methodology of Ontological
Coaching. What follows is an outline of an actual coaching conversation
in an organisational context that demonstrates the application of
the methodology of Ontological Coaching.
George was the manager of a business unit in a major international
manufacturing company. He had an outstanding background as an engineer
and gained rapid promotion to his current position and has strong
aspirations of reaching an executive position in the company. Unfortunately
though, relationships with many people in his unit had gradually
deteriorated. George often found himself snappy and irritable, and
even though he did not want to be this way, it was clearly interfering
with his effectiveness in his role. He liked the continuing challenge
of his work, but unfortunately it had become a major source of suffering,
with the erosion of the joy and stimulation he had once experienced.
His family life was also suffering, as he carried his negative mood
home with him.
George’s performance reviews consistently highlighted the need
for improvement in his communication with others. Early in the coaching
conversation it was clear George was experiencing a major difficulty
with delegation. More specifically, he was experiencing a communication
breakdown in making clear and effective requests (a key element
of the model of Basic Linguistic Acts). Making effective requests
is at the heart of how any workplace functions, as people continually
make and manage commitments with each other through requests, enabling
them to coordinate their different work activities and accomplish
George reported that he often found himself angry with the people
in his unit, and that he was often short and withdrawn in his expression
of this anger. When asked what the anger was about he replied that
he became angry when he felt that he had to ask people to do things,
because they should know what to do and that it was an insult to
him to have to ask. Further exploration revealed that this was a
pattern of behaviour he had learned in his childhood. From his family
experience George learned that you offend people if you do not know
what to do for them, and that you should not have to be asked. In
short, if you cared you would be alert, anticipate what they want
and do it for them. Furthermore, a very strong and unstated message
he also learned was that if you did not do this, your fundamental
worthiness (as a human being) was questionable.
George had a very powerful story and associated beliefs in one
area of relating to people. His story carried an expectation that
not only should he be alert to what others want done without them
having to ask him, it also carried the unquestioned assumption that
others should be as sensitive to him, especially as he was now in
a senior position. We might be tempted to say that all he had to
do was change the story and he could change his behaviour. However,
his story also had a strong emotional grip on him.
Needless to say, there was a fair bit of tension associated with
his story. A lot of emotional energy was required to maintain alertness
to the needs of others, and not have to deal with the question of
self-worth, as well as deal with the insensitivity of others when
they did not spontaneously notice what needed doing. The emotional
consequence was that most of the time George lived in a mood of
resentment (a major elements in the model Some Basic Moods of Life).
In other words, anger was almost permanently in the background,
easily triggered when he felt he had to ask others. His story and
his mood were also embodied; ie, he had configured his posture so
that (i) he found it hard to ask people and (ii) when he did ask,
his requests had a “sharp edge” to them and were not conducive to
developing positive workplace relationships.
It was important to provide George with some important distinctions
about the crucial role of requests in the workplace, including key
elements that are essential for making effective requests. This
provided him with some important ways of using language to enhance
his delegation skills, and he now had a strategy for making effective
requests. However, in the approach of Ontological Coaching, the
focus is not on providing people with strategies per se, and working
only in the domain of language is insufficient for facilitating
It was important to be attentive to what was happening with George
in the domains of emotions and body. In addition to his mood of
resentment, the coach also assessed that George was holding fear
in his body, which can be thought of as a mood of anxiety (another
Basic Mood of Life). Fear often “lives in” the chest area, as an
expression of withdrawing in to protect ourselves. It would seem
that George had also experienced a constancy of background fear
in his childhood. If he was not alert to the needs of others and
what he needed to do for them, then he would be chastised or punished.
For children especially, this means not being accepted, even ostracised,
something never pleasant to deal with, and certainly to be feared.
George’s moods of resentment and anxiety became embodied, and in
subtle, yet impactful, ways these moods permeated how he was in
The embodiment of moods is a powerful influence on how situations
are observed, and the behaviour that is possible to improve circumstances.
Moods can be regarded as predispositions for action: the particular
mood we are in will predispose us to behave in certain ways and
not others. George’s moods were not predisposing him to engage to
delegate successfully through making effective requests.
One of the most profound areas of leverage in coaching, at all
times with the permission of the person being coached, is to work
with his or her posture. Even when George changed his wording his
fundamental body configuration did not alter, and his negative story
and mood remained. When making his request (he was asked to speak
the words he remembered using in a recent incident) it was observed
that he rounded his shoulders slightly, slumped forward and down,
and that his chest concaved.
With George’s permission, the coach stood behind him and lightly
held his shoulders whilst George repeated his request. Even then,
the coach noticed that George continued to subtly concave his chest.
The coach shared this observation with George, who immediately became
aware of what he was doing and was amazed. Again giving the coach
permission to lightly hold his shoulders, George rehearsed his request
by holding his chest firm (but not rigid). To his surprise, not
only was there a different emotion in how he made the request, exemplified
in an alteration in the tone of his voice (from harsh to a medium-soft
tone with greater depth), but also the very words he spoke altered
to be more inclusive of the person he was asking for assistance.
This was practiced a number of times so that George could get “the
feel” of what it was like to make requests from a “different body”.
<p >In a follow-up conversation George reported “feeling much lighter,
more at ease with myself, and more open in my dealings with people”.
He also reported that “things were much better at home”. In addition,
his performance improved, reflected in a more positive performance
review. He was able to experience himself differently in a key area
of his work, which also produced different experiences in relating
with work colleagues and his family. Work and home took on a more
positive meaning for him.34
At a time when coaching is more readily characterised as an industry
than a profession, substantive theoretical frameworks are required
to enable coaching to move towards becoming a credible profession,
and therefore have the same community standing and recognition as
other professions. Ontology provides a rigorous theoretical basis
for a sound coaching methodology and acceptable coaching practice.
By understanding precisely how coaching clients use language, emotions
and physiology to structure their reality, an Ontological Coach
can respectfully intervene to support clients become different
observers develop a more constructive and less limiting reality.
language, emotions and physiology allow for the formation of new
perspectives, which can automatically open new pathways for effective
action and the accomplishment of desired outcomes that were not
1 Lou Marinoff, Philosophic Practice
2 The Oxford Companion to
edited by Ted Honderich, 634.
3 Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington, Coaching
4 Martin Heidegger, Being
5 John Searle, Speech Acts and
Meaning and Expression.
6 Many of Flores ideas can be
found in Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding
and Cognition and Charles Spinoza, Fernanado Flores and Hubert
Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds.
7 Humberto Maturana and Francesco
Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human
Understanding and Autopoiesis and Cognition.
8 It is interesting to note that
this was also a major discovery that occurred in the field of
quantum physics. See, for example, Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos,
The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind.
9 Humberto Maturana and Francesco
Varela, Autopoeisis and Cognition. 8.<
10 Humberto Maturana, Reality:The
Search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument.
Irish Journal of Psychology. 1988, 9:1 25-82.
11 George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self
12 Edward Sapir, Language and Benjamin
Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality.
13 Alfred Korrzybski, Science and Sanity:
An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction
16 Ken Wilber, Marriage of Sense and
Martin Heidegger, op cit.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books and Philosophical
Investigations; John Austin, How to do Things with Words; John
Searle, op cit..
19 For details of Basic Linguistic Acts
and their application in Ontological Coaching see Alan Sieler,
Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change.
20 Robert Solomon, The Passions.
21 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
22 ibid 172
23 op. cit. 173.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
P. Salovey and J. D. Mayer Emotional intelligence. Imagination,
Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211
26 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence,
Working With Emotional Intelligence, The New Leaders and Destructive
27 See Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions.
28 In Destructive Emotions Goleman
comments that Maturana’s theory was considered heretical in the
1970’s, but “now influences thinkers in fields ranging from philosophy
of mind and cognitive science to complexity theory” (307).
Francesco Varela, Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues
in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science; The View From Within:
First-Person Methods in the Study of Consciousness; Petriot, Jean, Varela,
Francesco J., Pachoud,
Bernard, and Roy, Jean-Michael. Eds. Naturalizing Phenomenology:
Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science;Depraz,
N., Varela, F. J. and Vermersch. On Becoming Aware: The Pragmatics
29 Ernesto Spinelli.
The Interpreted World.
30 Michael White.
31 Richard Simon. A frog’s eye view of
the world. The Networker. May-June 1985, 32-34.
32 Humberto Maturana. Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling
argument. op cit..
33 Paul F. Dell. Understanding Bateson
and Maturana: Toward a Biological Foundation for the Social Sciences. Journal
of Marital and Family Therapy. 1985, 11:1 1-20.
34 See Alan Sieler,
Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change for 25 more examples
of Ontological Coaching in action.
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<p >Zeus, Perry and Skiffington, Suzanne (2001).
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Alan Sieler is a world leader
in advanced coaching. He has been an executive coach, consultant
and coach-trainer for more than ten years. Alan is the Director
of Newfield Australia, which consists of two divisions:
Newfield Institute(TM) and Newfield Coaching.(TM)
Newfield Institute(TM) specialises in the research
and teaching of Ontology as a rigorous methodology for the development
of highly competent professional coaches and organisational consultants.
Alan has designed and leads the Asia-Pacific region’s most in-depth
and comprehensive coach-training program, which is the three-semester
Diploma of Ontological Coaching, as well as a range of introductory
Newfield Coaching(TM) specialises in the application
of Ontology in organisational settings. The application of this
methodology enables organisations to leverage the hidden power
of conversations and coordinated commitments as a crucial dimension
of organisational performance. The Newfield methodology is a unique
and highly effective approach to the development of people and
the quality of human interaction as an increasingly important
factor in competitive advantage.
Alan has worked with
personnel in global corporations and national organisations (private
and government) from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines,
Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, England, the United States and
South Africa, from such organisations as: Mobil Oil, ETSA, Caulfield
General Medical Centre, Woodside Petroleum, Australia Post, Telstra,
ANZ Bank, National Bank, Foxtel, National Express, James Martin,
Energex, Hewlett Packard, Noel Arnold, Mayne Health, ATSIC, Integrated
Energy Services, Country Fire Authority, Melbourne Fire and Emergency
Services, Western Power, Powercor, Australian Taxation Office,
CSIRO, Banyule City Council, Swinburne University, Victorian Department
Alan has written extensively on the
relevance of Ontology to living, working, learning and coaching,
including the book Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching
and Deep Change, which is the first of a three volume series on
Ontological Coaching. A range of articles can be found at www.newfieldaus.com.au