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Why Coaching to the Soul is Good for Business
by Alan Sieler

Learning

In the uncertain and turbulent global economic environment in which organisations operate, change has become a permanent feature of the business landscape. There is relentless pressure to ensure that companies remain competitive. It has become imperative for organisations to seek learning that will give them a competitive edge. Given the traditional approaches to organisational learning it understandable that there is a major focus is on developing systems, structures and practices to ensure efficient operations and market position. Increasingly though, it is pertinent to ask the question "Is this enough - are some key aspects of learning being ignored?"

Coaching has become an important new dimension of organisational learning. Coaches provide many forms of learning for organisational personnel, and coaching offers the distinct advantage of tailoring learning to the precise requirements of individuals and small groups.

The notion of “the soul" might seem at odds with the often harsh reality of organisational life and completely unrelated to organisational learning. Soul can seem like an esoteric concept, a bit "touchy feely", associated with religion, and philosophical discussions in "ivory towers". However, it can have a major bearing on enduring organisational concerns of performance, creativity, and productivity.

In order to explore the relationship between the human soul and business, it is first necessary to look at a key, and often underrated, variable in organisational performance.

Communication and Behaviour

There has been a gradual realisation of the importance of attending to communication and behaviour in organisational learning, as it is people who implement systems, structures and practices. Efficient organisational practices depend on human behaviour, in particular communicative behaviour, ie: how effectively people communicate with each other in the course of doing their work.

Much valuable coaching can be done in the area of behaviour and communication. How people behave and communicate in the workplace is reflected in their conversations. The quality of conversations in the workplace impacts on the quality of relationships, and workplace relationships have a major bearing on performance, creativity and productivity. What gets done and how well it is done depends on what is happening (and not happening) in conversations. Indeed, how well people work together is a form of capital - collaborative capital.

Conversations and relationships are the lifeblood of organisations. Indeed, organisations can be thought of as networks of conversations and relationships. The circulatory health of an organisational system is directly tied to conversations and relationships, for they impact of key issues of trust, morale and performance. In short, conversations and relationships are a key variable in organisational performance.

Coaches can play a valuable role providing personnel with strategies that enhance their workplace communication. However, when we stand back and take a look at the learning challenges that face organisations today, in some ways this contribution may not be sufficient. It is not enough to be effective. This may seem like a nonsensical comment, but it points to an important new and higher plane (level) of organisational learning that is available.

Generative Learning

In an environment that demands constant change, being shown new strategies is likely to be insufficient. It can be argued that it has become increasingly important for organisational personnel to be capable of generating their own strategies for more effective thinking and communication. For this to occur, a deeper form of learning is required, one that deals with the key driver of communication and behaviour, and gets to the heart of thinking.

In his well-known work on organisational learning, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge wrote: "Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we recreate ourselves." Organisations are in a continual process of reinventing themselves, so that they can successfully adapt and remain competitive. This is not going to occur independently of how people are - the way they are human. Fifty years ago W. Edwards Demming wrote: "Nothing changes without personal transformation." This does not mean that people have to undergo a "personality transfusion" or a "personality lobotomy". In one the delightful paradoxes of being human, it means that we can stay the same and be different. We can simultaneously stay who we are and change.

Organisational life requires people to be in continual transformation, so that their workplace behaviour, communication and work practices are evolving with ever-changing circumstances. This is going to require more than learning new strategies every now and then. A deeper form of learning is necessary, one that is generative in nature, enabling people to be the generators of their own learning and developers of more effective conversational strategies that produce performance improvement.

A Deeper Form of Learning

A deeper form of learning is available, one that gets to "the heart of what it means to be human" and Coaches have a major role to play in facilitating this learning. This is learning that focuses on our Way of Being, and how this impacts on our behaviour and communication. This is called ontological learning, and it is based on a new understanding of human beings and human interaction.


The word "ontology" means the study of being. Ontological Coaching is the practice that has developed to facilitate ontological learning and support people to make important shifts in their Way of Being.

Reference to the accompanying diagram indicates how Way of Being underpins behaviour and performance. Coaching to Way of Being provides the opportunity for deep learning that can drive profound and sustainable change, not only for individuals, but also for teams, units and organisations. When our Way of Being shifts, we are different observers - of ourselves and our circumstances. Different ways of observing reveal new paths for effective action - different ways to deal with novel circumstances.

So, what has the notion of the human soul got to do with all this? From an ontological perspective, soul is connected with our Way of Being. Thus, it is important to say a bit more about the nature of "Way of Being". This has been outlined in other papers and articles (see Ontological Coaching Methods) and a brief outline will be provided here.

Ontological Coaching

From the perspective of Ontological Coaching, our Way of Being is a continual dynamic interplay between language, emotions and body. To be human is to exist simultaneously in all three domains, and how we are in these domains impacts on our behaviour, communication and performance.

Language is regarded as the fundamental human technology, the means by which we get things done, and make the world happen. Language does much more than describe reality - it generates what is reality. We act on the basis of what constitutes reality for us. Ontological coaches work with a precise set of linguistic tools that enable people to see the pivotal role language plays in their everyday life. These tools are generative mechanisms, and an ontological coach is able to show people how to work with each tool to enhance conversations and performance, and bring about improved circumstances (new realities).

The coach is also able to support people in observing the role of emotions in their behaviour and performance. This includes the application of moods, which can be deep and invisible emotional spaces that drive negativity and positivity. Emotions and moods are predispositions for action, and as conversations and behaviour are action, being able to observe and manage moods and emotions is a core workplace competence.

The notion of the body is an interesting one. In a nutshell, our way of being is embodied, much of this may be entrenched and consist of "old habits that die hard". Rather than fight these habits, the coach is able to invite people to recognise how small and subtle shifts in the body can have profound effects on their moods (for the better!) and produce a more positive conception of themselves and their propensity to take more effective action.

Let's now have a closer look at the notion of soul.

The Human Soul

From an ontological perspective, our soul is the intersection of the three areas of language, emotions and body. Let's think of each area in a three-dimensional sense. Imagine that each area is a sphere and that the three spheres are continually moving in an interlocked way with each other. How the world shows up to us - what is possible in how we can learn, change and respond - is shaped by the dynamic interplay between the spheres. The deep intersection of these existential spheres, the heart of our existence, is our soul.

Soul is about living a deep, meaningful and fulfilling life, and is at the heart of our lives in personal and organisational contexts. According to Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, "'Soul' is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance". When we are deeply moved, our soul has been touched.

What can be so tragic in organisational life, as well as life in general, is that we have lost the connection with our soul - not only our own individual soul, but also the souls of others. We have lost connection with what matters deeply to us, and without knowing it, compromise the quality of our existence. Reference back to the large diagram indicates that our way of being is the basis of the quality of our existence.

The impoverishment of our soul and the lack of "soul nourishment" we experience in our work environments can impact directly on traditional organisational concerns of performance, productivity, creativity, innovation and competitive advantage. In many ways, being connected with our soul is a core business process. Coaching to the human soul makes good business sense because it is about supporting people to be at their best in living, learning and working. When people are at their best, organisations benefit from their enhanced performance, productivity and creativity.

Through their explorations in language, emotions and body, ontological coaches have the capacity to respectfully and caringly touch people's souls. Coaching to this depth is always done with the permission of the coachee, who is held as a legitimate other. When this occurs, profound shifts can be experienced, in which the person being coached clearly remains who they are, yet they have a profoundly and positively different view of themselves, others, circumstances, and what is possible.

One of the powerful offers of Ontological Coaching is to provide a learning environment in which people enhance their capacity to observe their way of being, and how to question and shift that if necessary. By so doing they are engaging in generative learning, the basis of creativity and of developing more effective strategies. Three key questions to be continually asking are:

  1. "How am I observing this?"
  2. "What is it about my way of being that has me observe this way?"
  3. "What is it about my way of being that needs to shift so that I can observe differently?"

This can be summed up by the expression the power of perspective. How we see things is how they are for us, but if we don't see how we see them, then we cannot act to shift our habitual ways of observing, as well as the limitations of our behaviour. We cannot intervene in a world we can't observe. A vital part of organisational transformation is being able to observe and shift way of being (individually and collectively). This process contains the potential for people to be deeply and positively moved.

By coaching to a way of being, Ontological Coaching is coaching to the human soul. An Ontological Coach is able to do this through (i) a new understanding of the role of language in human change, (ii) a deeper practical understanding of emotional intelligence, and (iii) the pivotal importance of body intelligence. This deeper understanding opens new doors for innovative thinking that can generate transformational leadership, high quality management, high performance teams, and the successful implementation of change initiatives.

In a world of accelerating and relentless change, old ways of being and observing are no longer sufficient. The demand is for people to continually reinvent themselves as observers. The philosopher Hans-George Gadamer wrote: "Insight is more than the knowledge of this or that situation. It always involves an escape from something that has deceived us and held us captive." Without knowing it, our way of being and observing can imprison us and leave us intellectually, emotionally and spiritually impoverished, limiting what is possible in learning and change.

© Newfield Institute

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