If you had told me two years ago that I would become a coach, I would have asked if you were out of your mind. After all, I wasn't a "people person". And this involves regularly talking to people that I didn't already know? No way, give me some code to work on instead.
Two weeks ago, I graduated from a 9-month ontological coach training program by The Coach Partnership and am now working towards certification. In this post, I'll talk about what coaching is in general, how ontological coaching differs from other types of coaching, and share what I've learnt along the way.
What Is Coaching?
It's easier to first talk about what coaching is not:
- Consulting or giving advice: the role of the coach isn't to provide answers to problems. I've heard it described this way: "Consultants answer your questions. Coaches question your answers".
- Therapy: therapy assumes that something needs to be fixed. Coaches hold their clients as creative, resourceful, and whole. Therapy also tends to explore the past, while coaches spend more time on the present and future.
- Teaching: teaching is the imparting of expertise. Coaches hold clients as experts in their own lives. Hence, coaches don't need to be experts in the subject at hand.
The International Coach Federation defines coaching as a partnership with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
The key word here is partnership. There should be no power imbalance between coach and client. Both parties are equals in this relationship. In other professions like consulting or teaching, there is usually one party with more power in the relationship.
The underlying structure in a coaching relationship sets coaching apart from a normal conversation:
- The client sets goals for what they want to get out of the coaching. This could be anything from being a better leader, communicating more effectively or seeking greater clarity in their careers. Because coaches don't need to be experts on the client's goals, coaching is broadly applicable to many domains.
- During each coaching session, the client chooses a session-specific goal which is usually related to their overall objectives from the coaching. This goal acts as a map that guides the rest of the conversation. The coach explores these goals to better understand them and why it is important for the client. For example, "what does becoming a better leader look like to you?", "why is this important to you now". This is important to find out if the goals are not theirs or if it doesn't get the client what they want.
- The coach supports the client to meet their goals for that session. This can be done in many ways such as by sharing observations and asking powerful questions. For example, "I notice that you don't seem enthusiastic even though you said this was something you are excited about. Is that accurate?". In this way, the coach provides a different perspective and acts as a mirror for the client.
- The coach supports the client to design actions or next steps to be taken between sessions and provides accountability for the client's goals.
The ICF code of ethics sets out standards of ethical conduct expected of coaches. In essence, it is about putting the interests of the client first such as by keeping the contents of coaching conversations confidential, disclosing potential conflicts of interest, and holding the distinction between coaching and therapy.
What Is Ontological Coaching?
Ontology is the philosophical study of being. Ontological coaching is coaching to the way of being or what it means to be human.
Most branches of coaching focus on taking action for the sake of some desired result.
The set of possible actions someone sees is determined by how he or she sees the world. Ontological coaching takes a step back from actions and considers how someone observes the world. This is done by examining the 3 components of one's way of being:
- Body: how someone moves or occupies space, posture, health
- Emotions: habitual emotional patterns, emotional range
- Language: internal and external conversations, beliefs about the self and about other people, who you say you are
Being human or way of being involves these 3 things: body, emotions, and language.
Ontological coaching focuses on raising the client's self-awareness to notice how their own way of being influences the possible actions they can see and hence, the results that they get.
With the internet providing access to so much information, I've found in myself and my clients that being stuck is rarely about the lack of knowledge. It is usually something in one's way of being that gets in the way.
For instance, let's look at a common belief of not being a "tech person". When someone says, "I'm not a tech person", they believe they are not good at dealing with technology and that improvement is unlikely. Difficulties with technology will reinforce that belief of not being a tech person. In contrast, someone who believes that improvement over time is possible will have an easier time learning to be proficient with technology1. This is how a belief in language influences how someone sees the world and the results they get.
Unfortunately, it is often very difficult at first to be aware of how we ourselves see the world. In that example, not being a tech person could appear so obviously true as to be an unchangeable fact.
This is where an ontological coach comes in by being an adept observer of body, emotions, and language. The focus of ontological coaching is developing self-awareness in clients of how they see the world (and the limitations therein) and with that awareness, shifting their habitual way of being for the sake of better results. Ontological coaching facilitates lasting change and transformation by working at the level of being - by coaching the person, not the problem.
What I've Learnt
As part of the 9 months of ontological coach training, I've done 23 hours of coaching in the field. I've found that I enjoy coaching, much to my surprise. These are some things I've learnt along the way.
- Becoming a better listener: I thought I was a good listener. However, I found it difficult initially to listen while resisting the temptation to fix or give advice. Before each coaching session, I would remind myself that my role was not to fix problems but to help clients do so themselves. This is also about quieting the internal conversations in my own head to be fully present and only thinking of a response only after someone is done speaking.
- Being comfortable with not knowing: one reason I love software engineering is how it rewards knowing what to do through forethought and planning. However, that isn't possible in a conversation with someone else. I've found that my discomfort with not knowing the "right thing to do" comes from wanting to perform or help facilitate some amazing breakthrough. After I learnt to embrace this discomfort and let go of my own expectations, I've found myself being more curious and attentive to the client because of not having my own agenda in mind. I'm now exploring what other areas in my life could benefit from adopting this mindset.
- Being in partnership with the client: partnership means the coach and client are equals. This means noticing when I may be doing too much to lead the conversation and providing opportunities for the client to set its direction. This became much easier once I accepted that I would not know where the conversation would go.
- Trusting my instincts: I struggled initially with listening to my intuition because I tend to be more cognitive. I've found that doing so has significantly improved my coaching by providing me information that I would otherwise not be aware of or allowing me to get to the heart of someone's concerns more quickly. For example, I normally feel it first when a coaching conversation is not on track - I would describe this as the rhythm of the conversation feeling "off". I may only cognitively understand where that feeling came from a few minutes later.
- Overcoming self-limiting narratives: as I said at the top of this post, I always considered myself to not be a "people person", whatever that means. That was a huge part of who I said I was and has played a big role in what I did. Because of this belief, I always doubted my ability to coach well. This faded as I got more experience with coaching.
- The paradox of good coaching: the ICF has a list of competencies to assess the level of coaching. Good coaching involves displaying these competencies but focusing on them means no longer being present with the client. I've found that being fully present and not worrying about the competencies naturally leads to much better coaching.
- Applying elements of coaching outside the coaching context: I struggled for a long time to integrate coaching with my day job as a software engineer. Recently, I realized that coaching competencies such as establishing trust, active listening and powerful questioning are exactly what makes someone a good leader. These are also invaluable skills in everyday contexts as well.
To become an adept observer of others, one must first become an adept observer of themselves.
I decided to embark on this journey of becoming a coach to understand myself better. It started with attending a workshop by The Thought Collective that introduced ideas from ontological coaching in an experiential way. It resonated with me deeply and I wanted to find out more.
I have found coaching to be both simpler and more complex than I expected. The complexity comes from what goes into a good coaching session and meeting the client where they are. It is also as simple2 as learning to be fully present with someone.
As much as I enjoy making a difference in someone's life, the greatest reward has been what I've learnt about myself and how I've grown as a result. If I had to choose, the highlight is being comfortable with not knowing, as that was something that seemed impossible before and opens many new possibilities.
What's next? I intend to continue my coaching practice to become officially certified. If this sounds interesting or if you think that coaching may help you reach your goals, hit me up!
Huge shout-out to my colleagues who have been on this journey with me (hi if you're reading this!) and to Steven Koh for fully supporting my interest in developing non-technical skills.