When I first started to receive coaching, I interpreted the ontological approach as “being nice”. Every time we talked about a situation, it seemed that it all came back to me changing who I was being in order to accommodate the behaviour of others. Most of the time, I coped with this. Sometimes, it frustrated me no end.

Although my behaviour may not have been perfect, in my assessment the behaviour of some of the people with whom I was interacting wasn’t great either. So it felt as though I was forever being nice to others when it probably wouldn’t hurt them to try being nice to me occasionally. Perhaps that sounds bitter. It is a sign of where I was at mentally at the time. I was trying to shift my way of being so that I could work with behaviours that included senior managers screaming and swearing at people while thumping fists on desks, and very senior managers handing out actual pineapples as punishment for those people who were late to their early morning meetings. These behaviours did not sit well with me and I struggled with the thought that I “had” to be “nice”.

Before I continue, I feel it important to say that this feeling of having to be nice was a direct result of my way of being at the time, and my interpretations as a newbie to the ontological approach. This is not a result of anything that my coach or instructor did or didn’t do. It is simply a sign of how, who and where I was in my way of being.

When applying the ontological approach, we can only shift our own way of being. So, regardless of what I think about someone else’s behaviour, if I want to have any chance of improving my interactions with that person, I can really only start by looking within myself and understanding my own way of being. When I do that, I may find that there is something that would help me to shift in order to interact effectively with the other person. It could be that I learn that it would be helpful to start speaking to the individual’s concerns around being treated as someone in authority, for example. It could be that there is a conversation missing that would be useful to have and that, from my current way of being, I don’t have access to either seeing that the conversation is necessary or actually having the conversation. So, in this way, the ontological approach is about shifting our own way of being in order to improve interactions with others. It is important to note that, in shifting our way of being, we are not saying that anything that we have done previously is “wrong”; there is no judgement. We are simply saying that the new way of being is potentially more useful (or more resourceful).

Where I think I was coming unstuck in the very early days of the coaching process was that I was assuming that I was receiving coaching because I was getting everything wrong. In those early days, whenever we talked about shifting my way of being, I always assumed that it was because I had been using the “wrong” way of being to start with and therefore any interactions that weren’t working well (including the manager yelling and swearing at me) were my fault. Interestingly, in situations where a manager was yelling and swearing at me, I tended to sit back and do nothing, because I assumed that taking my default action of either yelling back or crying and walking out was wrong and not being nice. And so, I said nothing in an attempt to be nice.

I then learned the concept of the legitimate other and, in my opinion, my tendency towards being nice got much worse before it got better. As a side note, I do think that the legitimate other is a beautiful term. I also think that holding someone as legitimate is an invaluable approach for quality relationships. However, it is also a term that significantly did my head in during those early days.

When we hold someone else as legitimate, we are holding them with the deepest respect. We understand that however they are behaving at the time is a direct result of their way of being, and we accept that they do not have access to other behaviours from that way of being. We don’t have to like or agree with their behaviours. We simply aim to respect that their way of being is not making any of the behaviours that we do like or agree with available to them at that time. My assessment is that this is a beautiful space and it is quite amazing to truly hold someone else as legitimate. However, in those early days, I thought that holding someone as legitimate meant that it didn’t matter what I was thinking because I had to be nice. I thought that having an issue with someone else’s behaviour meant that I just wasn’t doing this way of being thing “right”.

My challenges with holding others as legitimate came to somewhat of a head a few months into the coaching process when I was assigned to a project where I was working very closely with a colleague with whom I had not really worked before. We talked about the project, assigned tasks, developed milestones and set meetings. And then, my colleague did nothing. He did not meet his commitments and he found reasons for not attending meetings. When it was close to our time to deliver, there was a significant amount of work outstanding. Because I thought that the ontological approach was about being nice, and because I thought that holding someone as legitimate meant that I just had to put up with this behaviour, I said nothing to my colleague. Days from delivery, I sat with my colleague and we worked out how we could split the work between us so that we could have the project delivered on time. I completed the additional tasks, on top of what I had already completed, and I still said nothing.

It bugged me that I had not had a voice in the situation with my colleague. I could understand the benefit of deep respect towards a colleague, but I couldn’t understand why I felt so resentful about being nice. Thank goodness, I then learned about the legitimate self, because the penny finally dropped: I felt resentful because I wasn’t holding myself as legitimate.

In my interpretation, the legitimate self is about having a deep respect for self, and understanding that the behaviours, actions, and concerns that the self has are all legitimate for the way of being that we are in at the time. We may not want to be behaving how we are behaving, however understanding that this is what our way of being allows, and then finding ways to shift that without applying judgement are all part of holding ourselves as legitimate. I was so pleased to have learned this, because suddenly it all fell into place for me.

What occurred to me was that, in my earlier example of the colleague who would not commit, I was trying my best to hold my colleague as legitimate. I was accepting that my colleague’s behaviour was a result of his way of being, and I was accepting that he didn’t have access to other behaviours. What I wasn’t accepting, however, was that my own thoughts and opinions were legitimate too. So, yes, his way of being did mean that he had trouble honouring his commitments. However, from my way of being, I hadn’t wanted to accept this behaviour, and I had ignored this. I formed the assessment that my colleague was not speaking to my concerns around delivering a quality result in alignment with the project commitments we had made. I also formed the assessment that it was ok for me to not like that.

After some reflection, it occurred to me that “nice” isn’t a useful word for me. When I thought about being “nice” to people, it involved me ignoring my own legitimacy. Instead, I chose to think about being deeply kind and respectful.

Sometime after my initial encounter with this colleague, I had an opportunity to work with him again. Before our first meeting, I reflected on my way of being from the previous time we had worked together, and I shifted my way of being in an attempt to create a constructive working relationship with him. This time, my colleague defined the milestones. And, as the project progressed, he did precisely nothing. This time, however, I asked myself how I could be kind and respectful towards my colleague while also taking care of my own legitimacy. When I could see the project taking a similar path to the previous project, I spoke to our project manager and set the boundaries around what I would and would not be willing to do this time. Then, as my colleague continued to miss deadlines, I respectfully acknowledged his challenges and reasons for not completing his tasks, and asked him to manage it with the project manager. I was kind and respectful to my colleague at all times, however I also listened to what my needs were, and I ensured that those needs were met. So I guess that I was kind and respectful to my colleague, and also to myself.

As the delivery date loomed, I responded to every excuse from my colleague without judgement, and made a request that he manage his tasks with the project manager. Interestingly, my colleague did not ask me to share the workload on this occasion. Instead, he managed it with the project manager.

At the end of all of this, the interpretation that is currently serving me is that being nice isn’t about giving in to others or giving up on ourselves. It is about holding others and ourselves with a deep respect and kindness. It is about understanding that we are all doing the best we can from our way of being at the time. It is about being respectful of the needs of all parties involved in any interaction. Sometimes, in being deeply respectful and kind, there is a need to have difficult conversations, or to set boundaries, and that is perfectly ok.

It was interesting that once I had learned how to combine the legitimate other and the legitimate self, I felt able to tackle difficult situations more easily. All of a sudden, the difficult conversation with a work colleague didn’t seem as difficult, because it was a conversation about holding all parties with a deep level of respect and kindness.

After experiencing this learning, I recall that I was later involved in a difficult performance management process for a team member in the organisation in which I was working at the time. This is something that “nice” Deanne would have struggled with. However, “kind and respectful” Deanne was able to consider the legitimacy of all people involved – the team member, the organisation, the team member’s peers and myself – and work to take action that would hopefully maintain the legitimacy of all parties.

It’s ok to want to do “the right thing” by people, and my assessment is that doing so in a way that takes care of the legitimacy of all involved, including ourselves, is incredibly powerful.

What does “being nice” mean to you?

– The featured image in this blog post is a photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Who am I? 
I am a leadership and life coach, available for coaching and facilitation services. If you feel that it would be useful to have a conversation with me, please feel free to view my services on the Leading and Being website.

2 thoughts on “What Does Being Nice Mean?

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