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If you were to ask me, “what’s your philosophy of life, ”given the circumstances, I might shrug my shoulders and change the subject. Yet, even if I don’t articulate it on a moment’s notice, my philosophy of life is demonstrated in how I live every day. It’s in my moral grounding, politics, social contacts, and pretty much everything I think and do. It’s reflected in the quantity and quality of my relationships with other people. And most importantly, it forms the decision architecture that shapes all my behavioral choices.

What does philosophy have to do with coaching? 

For many coaches, a client’s deeper philosophy of life has nothing to do with how that person should be coached. Rather than coaching the person’s deeply rooted mindset, these coaches work with a client’s first-person experience or how a client’s philosophy is reflected in their moment-to-moment existence. In philosophical terms, this is described as coaching phenomenologically. At this level, a client’s life may look like a continuous undifferentiated flow of thoughts and behaviors that don’t connect at a deeper level. Yet, in reality, all behaviors are shaped by a firmly grounded, relatively transparent philosophy that has taken a lifetime of unique experiences to evolve. 

Coaching at this basic, behavioral level can produce temporary shifts in observable behaviors. And when the coaching ends, the stimulus for change ends, so odds are, a client will revert to familiar choices after coaching. But if the goal of coaching is a substantive and more lasting change, a coach will need to go deeper into a client’s philosophy of life. This is important because permanent changes in behavioral choices require a client to become a different observer of the same territory, starting with understanding that one’s philosophy of life forms the lenses through which they view their world. 

Having new eyes at the first level. 

The Birkman Method® assessment reaches the next level of understanding one’s unique personality, so a coach can help a client observe their existing world with new eyes. Birkman breaks down the continuous undifferentiated flow of thoughts and behaviors and points directly to the greatest areas of growth opportunity—personality trait by personality trait. 

However, Birkman doesn’t reveal the client’s philosophy, or the nature of that person’s deeper philosophical point of view. The book, On Coaching with The Birkman Method® takes the coach and client deeper into the decision architecture that lives at the most fundamental level of the personality. 

Having new eyes ⁠— a deeper level. 

“Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality.” For our purposes here, it’s how we define our reality, or what we believe the world is really like. And we want to know this because it shapes how we behave. For instance, if I think reality is a place of abundance, I’ll probably be more generous with my material goods. I might be more trusting of others. If I think it’s a place of scarcity, I might make the opposite choices. In this way, we can see that our unique point of view shapes our decisions.   

Ontological coaching is based on an understanding that our ontology shapes our observations (our unique world view) and therefore shapes the observer that we are. Our observer sees what it believes and what it believes is the basis of our ontology. Yes, it is that circular: Ontology predisposes behaviors and behaviors reinforce ontology. 

What is an observer? 

We are all observers of our unique personal realities, but it doesn’t end there. In the process, we are co-creators of the circumstances of our lives. If we’re successful, it’s usually not by accident. If we fail, we’re usually not innocent. 

In my experience, the real power of coaching is the ability to intervene in the observer/co-creator loop that builds our lives. Without that intervention, our clients will continue in the circular process of “ontology-observer/co-creator-ontology.” 

For example, as a manager, if I believe people can’t be trusted to do their jobs, I might think I need to manage them closely and be a strict disciplinarian. It will probably produce a resistance to risk on the part of those I manage. Their resistance will require me to make all the decisions. That will convince me I’m right and I need to be even more dictatorial and authoritarian. Seeing the world through these lenses limits me to the same choices, over and over again. 

The power of the observer.  

As Marcel Proust once proposed and I paraphrase here: The only true voyage of discovery, is not to visit strange new lands but to possess new eyes, to see the same reality through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred realities that each of them sees. 

The phenomenological coach need not be concerned with this because their work will be done within the confines of the client’s existing view of the world. It will be an exploration of all the choices available in that person’s ontology. And there are many, for sure. 

But the role of the ontological coach is to show the client a way to see that same world as though with new eyes. And in doing so, create options for choices they never imagined before. 

That’s a lot to absorb. 

A client’s (observer’s) observations cover an infinite range of possible ways to see reality. Fortunately, The Birkman Method® categorizes the key personality traits thereby creating a cognitive-linguistic map of a client’s reality including how they see themselves and others in their world. In other words, it sheds a clear and defining light on their ontology without ever saying the word ontology. 

While ontological coaching on its own can be very effective, the efficacy of having the precise traits articulated with the Birkman is beyond anything any coach can do without them. Birkman’s reliability and validity make it unsurpassed in the world of normal personality psychometrics. In the hands of the professional coach, this marriage can be the most powerful coaching approach available today. 

Read more in my book, On Coaching with The Birkman Method, to understand the creation and evolution of human personality at work, and in life. 

About the Author 

Robert De Filippis, an ex-corporate executive, has been a certified Ontological Coach and Birkman practitioner for over thirty years. He has coached hundreds of clients, trained dozens of Birkman practitioners and now shares his knowledge of how to coach using The Birkman Method. With a firm grasp on the theories of cognitive neuropsychology, and linguistic philosophy, his practical experience comes through in the many real-world examples in this book. 

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