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It is what you say and the way that you say it, that's what gets results. Try Ontological Coaching.

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

This Blog follows previous blogs including the basics of Ontological coaching? What the phenomenology is that?

I love and I mean really love to lead and facilitate and coach groups and teams using the Action Learning Set approach; something I’ve been involved with for many years in terms of individual development but also in terms of leading change. A coach and good friend of mine Sarah Ackroyd at the Coaching and Mentoring Centre in Bristol, UK summed it up when she said of Learning Sets, “This is where the magic happens”. Big shout out to Sarah and the team.

In this Blog, I’m going to look at Action Learning Sets and introduce and explore a few areas that I think are important to my practice. Firstly to go deeper into elements of Ontological Coaching, in particular, “Observation” and “Speech Acts” and in addition, to explore peoples' ability and willingness to disclose the ‘important stuff’, and the role that - Trust and Trusting - as well as - being Trusted and Trustworthiness play in this.

There are a few observations I’d like to make based on my experience and research to date.

Ontological Coaching

In my previous blog “Have you tried Deepak? It can put you in control”, I explored how an Ontological Coach can give you some techniques that enable you - to be - in a heightened state of awareness such that you can become an 'Observer of yourself' and subsequently make changes to put you more in control. Deep stuff eh? Well, being able to do this is a purposeful act that you can learn to do and with a bit of practice, you can, following some simple techniques, become more present and aware of your state of being – mind, body and emotion. Check out the blog and see how it works in action, as well as some of the pitfalls of not being aware :-). Once you become 'an Observer', your world view and also your ability to influence it will change… on.

Speech Acts

So in a state of 'Observing', the use of language becomes an even more powerful and purposeful part of being human. This includes the use of silence. This is also where Ontological Coaches use other key elements of practice, namely, ‘Speech Acts’. In essence, this means that when we use language and words i.e. we speak and use body language, it is much more than just saying something, indeed it is a ‘purposeful act’. The field of linguistics has developed and explored this theory in detail but I will try to summaries and set out the most used typology of Speak Acts adapted from the ELLO site and the work of John Searl:

Words as Representatives commit the enactor to the truth of an expressed proposition. These are assertions, statements, conclusions, boasting, describing, suggestions.

· I am a great coach, ha!

· Fred is an accountant.

· Bill is an ar****le!

Words as Commissives commit the enactor to some future action. So when you make promises, pledges, threaten or make a vow.

· I am going to leave you.

· I'll call you tonight.

· I’m gonna kill you!! (You don’t mean it obviously but we probably all say it).

Words as Directives are used by enactors who attempts to get others to carry out an action. Making a request or inviting, giving advice, making commands or challenges, daring or compelling someone to do something.

· You'd better tidy up that mess.

· Sit down and shut up!

Words as Declarations where the enactor wants to affect an immediate change. Making a declaration, resigning, firing or hiring someone, making an arrest.

· We find the defendant guilty as charged.

· I quit!

· As Sugar or Trump would say “You’re fired! Or You’re Hired”

Words as Expressives where the enactor gives a physiological or emotional element to their act. These are where we provide greetings or thankyous, apologising, complaining, and congratulating.

· This food is disgusting.

· I'm sorry to hear that.

· I’m pleased to meet you.

· Well done that is great.

This, of course, is a lot to take in, and no coach is going to say you have to learn all of this stuff because that’s what there are there to help you 'observe'. However, if you are able to become more aware of yourself and observe your own use of language, your style etc then you can be more in control because the use of language will also have an influence on the world around you. If you don’t, then others who might be greater 'observers' than you might also be in greater control.

You will note in the typology description, I don’t talk about the speaker but the enactor, because in its fullest sense the Ontological Coaching approach helps you to understand that it is not just the act of speaking, but the use of your body and emotion that can portray the speech act, folding arms, for example, smiling or pulling a face, coughing, winking, a hand movement or gesture are all ways to express a speech act even without words – and of course there is the use of silence.

Disclosure and Trust – using Action Learning as the case study

In a coaching arrangement, individually or in groups I’ve observed that people (on the whole) are willing and able to disclose deeply personal elements of their life, work, emotional state and thoughts to people who they don’t know well but they do have one very specific agreement when they do it – TRUST. Trust in this sense is negotiated in the coaching arrangement, but you can’t get away from the deeply human element as the relationships develop over time. The most amazing discussions take place when the levels of trust and understanding between the parties, reaches its peak, that is if it ever stops improving.

To trust that the people you disclose to will do no harm, take no offence and are going to be there to support you is a wonderful experience. Having trust is a great quality, being able to trust, being trusting means (doesn’t it?) that you are capable of having a positive outlook on life and you probably think that people are on the whole good, even if they make mistakes.

The act of saying something for the first time and making yourself vulnerable can have a powerful effect on you and those around you, especially if it brings with it an emotional and/or physical response. This is where coaching comes into its own and why it’s not something that should be attempted by people who in effect are amateurs, something I have blogged about in previous posts regarding the need for qualifications and professional standards in coaching.

People, when they disclose things about themselves, can become emotional and the mere act of saying something out loud can bring a huge tide of emotion and an overwhelming need to, for example, cry or even laugh. Knowing what to do and how to ensure that person is supported and given the time and space to experience and process what is happening to them requires empathy and skill, something that professional coaches are likely to have.

This is also where the use of silence in coaching can be a powerful way to hold onto the moment and allow people to have the full experience and the love and support they need at that moment. I have now blogged on the power of silence in the coaching arrangement in my blog What would Sooty say? Part 1 - the beauty of silence in coaching.

Disclosure and Trustworthiness

Being trustworthy is another great quality to have - but - how on earth do you prove to someone that you are trustworthy? How do people know that you are, even if you are not trying to prove it? It’s a very personal and brave act to open up to someone, let alone a group of people in a Learning Set. However, if you believe in trustworthiness so that you - KNOW - that when you do, they won’t use what you say or do or feel in any other way than constructively, positively, and in your best interests then you have a great gift. This, by the way, is one of the true qualities of a great coach, Trustworthiness.

In a future blog, I am going to explore Trust in even more detail, including some anecdotal experience of using the Trust Equation, but for now, I’m going to leave it that Trust and Trustworthiness go hand in hand and they are a deeply human trait. If people enter into a coaching type of relationship including an Action Learning Set then trust and in particular, trustworthiness is of paramount importance and should not be broken else it can cause serious harm to all parties.

In an Action Learning Set, the coach acts as a facilitator, encouraging and supporting those in the group to follow a few simple steps to ask questions of and support each other to explore a problem or idea around the challenge that they might be facing.

One of the key elements of Ontological Coaching is to enable people to become 'Observers' and more aware of the 'Speech Act' or at least the effect of what they say. This is a central element of the process to enable people to become fully present and acute observers of themselves in all of mind, body and emotion and as far as possible to do the same when they observe others.

In an Action Learning Set, participants ask each other questions and it is often the case that those who are the focus of the questions try to attempt to answer them (obvious eh?). However, a much more powerful approach that should be facilitated by a coach (apart from ensuring the questions are open and not leading) is to ask simple questions like:

1) Now you've heard the questions, what are you thinking? Why? Tell us more …

2) How does that make you feel? Why?

3) What are you observing?

4) What have you learned?

If you have ever participated in an Action Learning Set and experienced the sheer beauty of having a group of people who are focused on you, asking simple but powerful questions and being there to support you in what you are exploring, you’ll know how intensely powerful and enlightening it can be.

If working with an Ontological Coach then hopefully some of the insights I have tried to provide you in this blog might make you think a bit differently about what you could achieve with a little more awareness and support. Ontological coaching is often described as Transformational Coaching.


This has been quite a complicated blog and as I’ve been writing it I have been wondering what the central messages is right now and also where it will take me next. Well here are my thoughts for you as a gift….

Becoming more aware of yourself and the influence you have on others and that others have on you is an empowering and purposeful process. In business and organisations today people actually use these techniques for things other than the coaching process whether it be people in sales, human resources, management and so on who are trained and willing to use their new insights for different ends. The aim of this blog is to raise awareness of these powerful concepts and actions so that you too can start to understand and be more aware, I hope though, to think about and use them wisely and in line with the ideas I introduced in my blog on Coaching Cultures and Virtues.

Becoming an active observer, understanding how and what you say, feel and do has both an influence on you and others and as far as possible when you use a coaching approach for growth and development the more you can build close and trusting relationships with people, the greater your ability to learn and grow will be. An old manager of mine used to say that “Feedback is like gold-dust” and I believe that he was absolutely spot on – especially when the feedback is constructive and positive but even when it isn’t there is always something that you can act on and learn especially about yourself if you come through adversity.

Coaching in groups or Action Learning Sets is a wonderful experience especially if people come to the table with the trust, trustworthiness and willingness to participate in the ways I have espoused in this paper. The extension of this to encompass the elements of Ontological Coaching can, I think, can take this to a whole new level.

I’m going to sign off for now, but as ever – I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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