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The Legitimate Other
By Paul Raciborski and Alan Sieler

Paul Raciborski from Sydney is a participant in the current Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching. In this article Paul shares a significant moment about power of the distinction of “the legitimate other”, which is central to the ontological approach to everyday personal and professional living and coaching.

Following the work of biologist Humberto Maturana, we live in acceptance of others when we allow them to arise as a legitimate other in co-existence with us. Legitimising others does not mean you have to agree with them; we can disagree and provide a conversational space for them to express their views without being caught up in our own emotional negativity about them and their ideas.

You might say, “We all know about that – it’s about treating each other respectfully”. Indeed it is, but one of the unfortunate habits we can easily fall into is subtly, but powerfully, not legitimising others in our thoughts, brief comments and other deeds. In this process we can dismiss not only another person’s ideas, but also negate them as a person, perhaps by not fully listening to them or having a negative conversation in our head about them, perhaps labelling them in some way and believing the label to be true, not acknowledging it is our label. We can so easily do this without realising it with those we are closest to in our family, our friends and work colleagues, as well as public figures. The consequence can be the significant closing down of what is possible in our relationship with others and constructive utilisation of the creative tension of different perspectives.

Here is Paul’s perspective on the relevance of the notion of the legitimate other.

“I have worked in corporate project management for nearly 12 years. Prior to this I worked in manufacturing, mainly in the packaging industry. I became interested in coaching as an adjunct to change management within projects. Since starting the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching it has become one of my passions.

“Over the Christmas holidays in 2003 I was on a family holiday walking in the mountains on New Zealand’s South Island. A large rock fell on my chest and as a result I fell about 10 metres. I suffered multiple injuries including a traumatic brain injury, broken left eye socket, four cracked vertebrae, finger damage and a compound fracture to the lower right leg. I was in a coma on full life support for three weeks and post traumatic amnesia (PTA) for a further 11 weeks. I have a three month gap in my life. I have had an unusually good outcome – I survived and I am back at work doing similar work. This great outcome came about for three main reasons; luck – not too much frontal lobe damage, great care and support from those around me and inner determination. As a result of this great outcome I was motivated to give something back I am now president of the NSW Brain Injury Association.

“Each year in NSW around 50,000 people suffer a brain injury, either acquired brain injury as the result of stroke, illness or drugs or traumatic brain injury as the result of incidents including motor vehicle accidents, falls, fights, hypoxia and sport. Yes, 50,000 people a year in NSW alone.

“One of the many significant learnings I have gained so far from the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching is the notion of the legitimate other.

“On Friday morning, June 3rd I was part of a training session at Penrith Local Court for employees of the Attorney General’s Department. I was on a panel of three speakers talking about disability and the difficulties we faced. There was myself representing people with an acquired brain injury, James who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia for 21 years representing people with mental illness and Robert, who was born with hydrocephalus, representing people with an intellectual disability. While I was listening to both Robert and James the legitimate other came to the forefront of my inner voice, because through my own experience and that of another family member how people “other than normal” can be subtly marginalised. I spoke about the legitimate other with the group and got appreciative acknowledgement from Robert in particular. As a result of this experience I was prompted to write this short piece of prose – a first for me in 51 years.”

A Plea From A Legitimate Other

Listen
Listen to my language
Listen to my emotions
Listen to my body

Conversation
Don’t talk to me
Don’t talk at me
Talk with me

Stories
Quieten your story
Listen to my story
To me, my story is important

Questions
Ask, don’t tell 
Share understanding
Listen to my answers

We are both legitimate others

In closing you might like to reflect on the following questions:

© Newfield Institute

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