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Philosophical Foundations of Coaching: Ontology

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William Bergquist and Kristin Teresa Eggen

In this essay we wish to focus on two dimensions of ontology that hold profound implications for the practice of professional coaching. One of these dimension concerns the static or dynamic nature of one’s notion about being. Can we define a state of being that is stable—is “being” a noun—or is any statement regarding the state of being always in flux—is “being” a verb? The second dimension concerns the basic assumption that it is or is not possible to accurately describe and validate a description of reality. Those who believe this description is possible are called “objectivists” and those who believe it is not are called “constructivists.” We propose that four ontological perspectives can be identified when these two dimensions are combined. We focus in particular on a dynamic constructivist perspective regarding the world in which coaching clients live and work.

Two events precipitated this article on the relationship between ontology and coaching. The first event was the interview which one of us conducted with Julio Olalla in an issue of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations (Olalla and Bergquist, 2008). The second event was the first meeting between the two of us in Oslo, Norway. During a symposium conducted by the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations (ICCO), the two of us had a chance to walk and talk together on the roof of the new Opera House in Oslo (a remarkable architectural feat). We discovered that we shared much in common about the interplay between philosophy and coaching, as well as about the challenges of thinking in new ways to meet the unique features of 21st century life.

In our conversations about ontology and coaching, we have encountered a wide variety of definitions and meanings assigned to the word “ontology.” While all (or at least most) perspectives on ontology are concerned with one very ambitious undertaking—understanding the nature of being—there are many different turns and pathways that one can take on the way to this understanding. In general, we would propose that there are two interrelated dimensions that help to discriminate among these differing definitions and meanings. One dimension concerns the static or dynamic nature of one’s notion about being. Is “being” a noun or a verb? Are we talking about an object or about a process? The second dimension concerns the basic assumption that it is or is not possible to ultimately identify the basic nature of being—in other words, to accurately describe and validate a description of reality. Those who believe this description is possible are called “objectivists” and those who believe it is not possible are called “constructivists.” Four different ontological perspectives are available when one combines these two dimensions.

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