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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Ontological Coaching for ESOL Speakers in Professional Life

Robert Feather has been a teacher of English as a foreign language for 40 years in a range of contexts. He has worked in Egypt, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Russia. It was at Pilgrims in Canterbury where he learned about and began to practise the humanistic approach. This has led him to the latest personal and professional transformation – that of becoming a coach in the field of EFL.


When coaching is appropriate

The following are some of the participants’ complaints on the ESOL for Professionals courses I have led:

“When the phone rings and I know it’s an English native speaker, I avoid answering and let my colleagues do it.”

“I feel like an impostor when I’m at a meeting and have to speak English with native speakers.”

“The company language where I work is English, but feel it’s ridiculous to speak English with my colleagues who speak the same mother tongue as me.”

“My English is not good enough.”

“While I’m speaking, I have to check whether my grammar is correct. This takes away my spontaneity.”

“I’m not confident when I’m speaking English.”

Before I discovered the coaching approach, whenever a participant said something like the above, I felt embarrassed. I was lost for a way to respond, then I used to trot out one of the following sympathetic or teacherly replies:

“No, really, your English is good enough.”

 “Practise, practise, practise: it’s the only way.”

But every time I said something like this, I felt frustrated because the response I got was underwhelming, as if the participant was waiting for something more. Clearly, I was not responding to them at the level they were opening up, nor was it taking them any further. I can see now that they may have been crying out for a different approach even if they did not know it. I now think that it is questionable whether sympathy or teacherly reassurance is useful, though students may like these kind-hearted approaches. Like me, many other teachers may have invested a lot of themselves in the self-image of being a nice, caring, encouraging teacher. Indeed, I now realise that sympathising with complaints is merely confirming the prison this person has got themselves into – the prison of complaining. What is more useful is that participants be challenged to acknowledge their prison, to realise that, paradoxically, the bars of this prison “are not made of iron. They are made out of the attempt to get out of the prison.” (Werner Erhard, Speaking Being p304). When this realisation happens, what arises is the freedom to generate new possibilities and the commitment to realise them.

A person can’t avoid making interpretations, because it is part of being human, but coaching can bring about a transformation in a person’s relationship with their inner dialogue. The basis of coaching is different from teaching or training and involves the participant and coach in a very different relationship. The level which coaching addresses is how a person is being, not what they know. The participant needs to identify the source of their ‘stuckness’ and be willing to create a new way of being for themselves towards their English. Both of these actions rely on a level of honesty and openness that is not something everyone is prepared to give to a conversation in the context of learning English. If it is not something they have ‘signed up for’ then it can’t be imposed on them. But coaching is appropriate if the teacher-turned-coach has gained the trust of the participant and they have agreed to be coached.


Teaching context and Coaching context

In the traditional teaching context there is the provision of information about and practise of grammar, vocabulary and functional/situational structures together with skills-based approaches to listening, speaking, reading and writing. Along with this, it is traditional for the teacher to alert student to errors and give feedback on how to improve performance. In other words, the teacher is required to judge the performance of the student. The teacher needs to be the authority on what is correct or incorrect.

In the coaching context there is no judgement of good and bad, right and wrong. Such judgement is considered to be a block. It impedes flow and confidence and power in communication. The coachee is the authority on their life not the coach. The coach is there to create and opening so that the coachee can find a way forward for themselves, not to advise them or recommend a particular way. Without judging, the coach is committed to finding out how the coachee sees the world, to searching for “the glimpse of genius” in them (Rich Litvin The Prosperous Coach p107), and to being entirely present in the conversation.

The context of coaching is the future. Everything in a coaching session is directed towards the coachee creating possibilities for themselves. Part of the process is “flushing out” (Ryan Mathie) habitual interpretations from the past that are blocking the coachee but only in aid of freeing them up for creating the results they want in the future. This is the only plan the coach has, unlike the teacher who is typically required to provide a detailed plan of work to be covered in every session. The teacher prepares the lesson and in so-doing handcuffs themselves to the plan and prevents them from being entirely present to where the student’s thoughts & feelings are going. The coach does not prepare but they are prepared. They are completely present to the conversation.


Basic elements of ontological coaching

The way the mind works on events is as follows: events happen and immediately every individual interprets these events differently and then acts from the interpretation rather than from the event itself.

For example: “One day I picked up the phone and tried to communicate in English but I could not understand the person speaking. So, from now on I’ll leave phone calls to my colleague whose English is better than mine.”

The event – There was a phone call. The other person spoke in English.

Action/Interpretation – I couldn’t understand the speaker.

Interpretation – My English is not good enough. They think I’m incompetent at my job.

The resulting action – I will leave phone calls to my colleague whose English is better than mine.

The role of the coach is to have a conversation about these elements and to bring clarity to the coachee’s mind by distinguishing event from interpretation. An event is just an event. It is not the same as the interpretation. The interpretation is an interpretation not the truth. Different people could interpret the same event differently. Everyone’s habitual interpretation is based on past experiences. Reacting to a new event with reactions from the past is to live into the future as the past. If your interpretation of your language-learning skills is “I’m not good at languages,” then you are not going to be positive about your ability to learn: “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they are yours.” (Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, quoted by Emanuelle Betham, in Coaching for Language Learning p39.)

These habitual interpretations will resurface but when they do, they can be acknowledged. Acknowledging them as interpretations opens up space for a new interpretation that is governed by the outcome you want not by the outcome you fear.

The coach’s technique is to ask questions to find out what it is like to live in the world of the coachee and to lead them into an opening that will bring freedom from what is blocking them and the power to create the outcomes they want.


For example:


a. Stating a desired result

Coach: What outcome do you wish for? What is your dream?

Coachee: To be able to pick up the phone and understand the native speakers who phone me at work. To be able to respond to them with the clear information and for them to understand me.


b. Discovering what’s blocking the coachee

Coach: What actions are you taking that are blocking this?

Coachee: I’m avoiding picking up the phone.

Coach: What interpretation do you have that is blocking this?

Coachee: I’m frightened that I will not understand them and that they will think I’m incompetent.


c. Creating a new future

Coach: What actions can you take that are completely aligned to the result you want?

Coachee: I could pick up the phone. I could ask them to repeat or speak more slowly. I could say: “What do you mean by X?” “Can you explain in other words what you mean by X?”

Coach: What ways of looking at the situation can you create that are aligned to the result you want?

Coachee: I know that I’m not incompetent in my job. I know that the success of communication between different mother tongue speakers in the company is the responsibility of both parties not just me. I can choose to speak English.

Through in-depth conversations the coachee will understand that they have it within their power to create a confident way of being in their professional interactions in English. The coachee’s willingness to do this depends on them trusting the coach which in turn depends on the coach being authentic, open and truly serving that individual. It is a conversation different in kind from a traditional teaching interaction. It is focused on issues that underlie learning and performance. It is designed to get the coachee to generate for themselves that they enjoy using English and hence give rise to confidence.

With greater confidence, their access to their English will be more fluid and their ability to do their job in English will become a challenge and a pleasure rather than something to be feared and avoided. They will be acting from a possibility they have created rather than from the debilitating stress that comes from the past.



Betham, Emanuelle: Coaching for Language Learning 2018

Chandler, Steve & Litvin, Rich: The Prosperous Coach, 2013

Erhard, Werner in Speaking Being by Bruce Hyde & Drew Kopp, 2019

Gallwey, Timothy: The Inner Game of Tennis 1974

Mathie, Ryan – YouTube coaching sessions


Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Not Listening – an Apology: Listening Authentically in the Context of Ontological Coaching for Adult ESOL Users
    Robert Feather, UK

  • Ontological Coaching for ESOL Speakers in Professional Life
    Robert Feather, UK