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Philosophical Foundations of Coaching: Ontology

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The hermeneutic circle and use of metaphors

There is actually a third level of narrative which makes the dynamics of constructivism and coaching even more complex and challenging. We are co-creating narratives (and ultimately creating reality) with other people—those with whom we are interacting. All meanings or statements are referring to a system of narratives and semiotics, but this is in itself an open-ended system of signs referring to signs referring to signs. No concept can therefore have an ultimate, unequivocal meaning (Weaver, 1996, p. 171). We can illustrate this complex, nested dynamic—called the hermeneutic circle—by turning to narratives and conversations that occur within a workplace. For example, once the manager of a specific department has spoken, the reality that was created when she spoke is no longer present. Even if she says the same words, they are spoken in a different context, hence have somewhat different meaning. Thus, even when our manager is “speaking”—in the form of vocalized or written words or in the form of other images (visual, tactile)—these words or images will have different meaning each time they are interpreted. Meaning will shift depending on who hears the statement, what the setting is in which the communication takes place, and which words or images have preceded and will follow these efforts at communication. According to the dynamic constructivists, therefore, reality for the 21st century manager is a shifting phenomenon that is subject to change and uncertainty, meant to be expressed in nuanced, ever-changing ways, again and again, in response to new contexts.

More than ever, our organizations are based on and dependent on these dynamic interpersonal conversations and shifting, context-based narratives. Most people, resources and attention in present-day organizations are devoted not to the direct production of goods or direct provision of services, but to the use of verbal and written modes of communication about these goods and services. Given these conditions, story telling and narrative are central to 21st century leadership. Stories are the lifeblood and source of system maintenance in both personal and organizational lives. The construction of stories about organizational successes and failures by leaders is critical to the processes of personal and organizational transformation. Clearly, the conversations that are most effective in bringing about organizational integration frequently take the form of metaphors that are conveyed through stories. (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003) Metaphors are used to portray something about an organization—in particular something about leadership, authority, and values. These metaphors are central to the organization, for they contribute to the conversations that are at the heart of the organization. They point to a shared set of signs and narratives, and as such create, recreate and strengthen the experience of shared values.

The stories of an organization are important to fully appreciate for yet another reason: they are critical bridges between the present and past. Organizations exist at the present moment in time. The past life of an organization exists largely in the present conversations, i.e., the stories about the past. It also exists in the conversations that are now taking place about past conversations (via archival records). The formal records of the organization are the conversations that take place between people who are of the present and the past. Similarly, the organization’s future is shaped in current conversations about this future. Narratives actually do more than tell stories, they create a framework in which the identity of the organization is perceived and presented. Story-telling is a central ingredient in relationships. Relationships, in turn, become important in the reconstruction of reality—whether this reality be personal or organizational in nature.

Several questions arise from this dynamic constructivism. In what way(s) do the personal and organizational narratives and images influence or alter one another? Is there a shift in the organization’s narrative when a new top manager is hired, or the organization itself is restructured? From the perspective of the coach, there are major concerns with regard to the nature of narrative and identity that is being conveyed by the organization and the narrative and identity of each employee –and in particular the person receiving coaching services.

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