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A Client’s Experience of Ontological Coaching
Report provided by Ian Higginbottom
Ian Higginbottom is an executive coach and leadership facilitator in Canberra, Australia. One of his clients has graciously written a detailed report of their experience and the enormous benefit they gained from Ian’s utilisation of the ontological methodology in the coaching engagement. Here is their report …
I remember how I felt at that first coaching conversation: that horrible ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and the feeling of uncertainty as I started to talk about my self-doubt and how it was affecting me.
The feelings in my body were very real; the mass of anxiety would take over my stomach and some of my upper body, very loyally accompanied by the usual self-judgement, which took over every part of my upper body that anxiety had left vacant. I was terrified that I would discover just how useless I really was, and I recall clearly the conversation inside my head: “This guy is going to find out that I am incompetent and that I don’t deserve this job. It’s obvious. I wouldn’t be doubting myself if I could do this job. I am incompetent. I don’t know how I am going to cope when we both realise this.’
The pressure that I was placing on myself meant that this whole self-growth thing was all rather challenging and nerve-wracking, and I wondered more than once during that conversation what I was doing in trusting a complete stranger to help me regain my confidence. As the conversation progressed, it all seemed a little less quick-fix-like than I was hoping, and I wanted to say “Just tell me how to become confident and not burst into tears randomly, so I can move on”.
In that first session, I made a silent commitment to the following goals for the coaching process; this was where I ultimately wanted to be when this series of conversations finally came to an end:
We started the conversation by talking about the Ontological approach; the bringing together of language, emotions and body to create a “way of being”. I remember thinking that this all sounded simultaneously interesting, exciting and downright wanky.
I decided to focus on interesting and exciting, and continued to listen to the whole “way of being” thing. I learnt that our behaviours and actions come from our way of being. If we don’t have access to specific actions from one way of being, we then look at what shifts are required in each of language, emotions and body to bring about a more resourceful and useful way of being that does have access to those actions.
OK, so it all made sense, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t feeling the slightest bit skeptical.
I learnt a lot about moods that day. In particular, I learnt that, at that point, I had a strength in anxiety. We talked about turning the anxiety into curiosity, and changing my language to support that. So, instead of saying “I can’t do this”, I formed the opinion that it may be more helpful to say “I wonder what we can achieve”.
We also talked about how language includes our thoughts as well as our spoken language. This was significant to me because I have a very crazy mind that can produce thoughts at an astounding rate, and back then they weren’t always thoughts conducive to a mood that served me.
Next, we did the body work. To set the scene, I was actually quite self-conscious back then. People tended not to realise this because, in an attempt to compensate for my insecurities, I would often be boisterous and loud. However, I hated being the centre of attention. I also hated doing anything that required me to pretend that I had any form of co-ordination or physical ability.
And, here I was, trying to work out the posture of an anxious person in front of someone I had just met, and with a tonne of self-judgement going on for me. (Plus, I had to take my shoes off and I was worried that my feet would smell!)
It seems that my many years of experience with anxiety meant that I was able to “model” an anxious body with awesome expertise.
After standing in the body of an anxious person, I then tried to stand in the body of someone in curiosity or wonder, reciting the language that is typical of someone in that emotional space. Interestingly, I could feel the difference almost immediately. I started to feel just a little bit of hope that this approach might work.
That hope did not come without discomfort. I felt so awkward throughout the whole body exercise and I really did not enjoy any of it. The mass of anxiety in the pit of my stomach was working overtime, and I felt like a complete fool. However, I was here for results and I was going to get them, so I put my trust in the process, gave permission for the body learning to occur, and refused to give up.
Even though I hated every minute of this work, the results were amazing. I could really feel the difference between an anxious body and a curious body, and feeling that difference was just the best. It gave me the tiniest skerrick of faith in myself and the process.
I want to make it clear that even though I didn’t enjoy body coaching at that point in my life, I definitely gave permission for this to occur. It was totally my choice to continue with it even though I didn’t enjoy it. My discomfort was a result of my own self-judgement and, regardless of that discomfort, I was determined that I was going to achieve the results that I was after. This determination served me well at the time. It is fair to say, however, that I have since learnt to be healthily determined with an appropriate level of self-kindness.
In this conversation, we talked largely about moods and emotions, as well as the conversations that I was having with myself. I formed an opinion that I was operating from a mood of anxiety, and I started to focus on how this could be turned into curiosity or wonder.
I left that first conversation with what I thought were some very basic actions:
I have to confess that I was far from convinced that this approach was going to get huge results. I really felt as though the type of change that I was after would require more than slightly lifted shoulders and an internal monologue that wondered what I might achieve instead of “knowing” what I couldn’t achieve. However, it was what I now had available to me to work with, so I decided to go forth and give it a go.
As I said earlier, our way of being is made up of what is going on in our language, emotions and body, and from there, we take action.
The actions that we take can therefore be limited by how we are being, and it took me a very long time to arrive at the conclusion that being limited doesn’t mean that I have done something wrong. Rather, it means that learning about how to shift my way of being could be useful.
In the early days, I had an appointment set in my phone for me to check in with myself and see how I was “being” in each of these domains. I didn’t feel totally competent at noticing things in the moment, so I set aside time to take the time to notice.
The actions that I committed to at the end of this coaching conversation seem small, well they seemed small to me at the time. However, something that I find quite amazing about this approach is that even the smallest of shifts can make a difference. People were commenting on the change in me the very next day. I recall having the daily management meeting the next day, adjusting my shoulders so that they weren’t so slumped, and feeling almost ready for anything. I was very pleasantly surprised!
I made some private declarations during this coaching conversation, largely around what I was going to achieve out of the coaching process. Again, I didn’t realise that I was making declarations at the time. Declarations, I think, have amazing power. Imagine the power when we actually know that we are using them!
Finally, the power of body is both amazing and important with regard to our way of being. As a manager, I have had some situations at work where I have had to deal with some not so pleasant staff issues. Something that I now make sure that I take the time to do is to be aware of how my body is and how I want it to be. For example, if I am delivering bad news about someone’s job – how am I feeling about that emotionally? How is it feeling in my body? If I take action from that body, will the action serve the individual and myself? What would serve them better? It can be helpful to spend time completing some body learning exercises prior to a situation that we may assess to be difficult.
Points to Ponder…
Ian Higginbottom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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