Ontology (my big word of the month) and Humility

The idea of humility has been with me a lot lately. Perhaps there are a lot of angles to the subject, both witnessing clients struggling with asking for what they want as well as my own newfound understanding of reforming one’s identity in (semi) retirement. Finally we have recently completed building a custom home, which involved hundreds of decisions which had no clear right answer … it was often critical for us to hear each other’s position if we were to avoid significant conflict.

I’ve recently been reading the book “Conscious Business” by Fred Kofman and he has introduced a new view on humility that resonates deeply with me, perhaps redefining how I approach the subject entirely. The concept is based out of a branch of philosophy called ontology. Ontology studies concepts related to our perception of reality, and those perceptions guide our engagement in the systems of our lives.

That each of us enters our daily existence with our own unique perception of reality is not a surprising revelation to me: I am acutely aware of my MSU reflex (making stuff up) that clouds the truth of what is actually happening. Fred articulates this into two polarized stances that I believe can be within us at any moment, depending on unique circumstances and triggering event.

He calls them ontological arrogance and ontological humility. Those are mouthfuls to say but they are powerful once we understand them.

Let’s start with the former. It’s definitely the easier of the two and perhaps emotionally safer. Ontological arrogance simply means that one has a strong investment in believing that one’s view of reality is … well … reality. There aren’t other views. If you don’t see it my way then I’m sorry to say that you are wrong. We may have differing ways of conveying that belief such as passive resistance, passionate arguing, aggressive posturing, etc. The goal of the ontologically arrogant is to demonstrate that their reality is the correct reality.

Ontological humility accepts that there are (at least) three realities in any conversation: yours, mine and what’s really happening. One who practices ontological humility holds their own reality in a way that honours themselves, but also acknowledges that there may be missing information and perspective that would cause their understanding of reality to shift. In short, the ontologically humble person is not invested in being right … they are invested in knowing the truth.

While ontological arrogance may be easier, more comfortable, perhaps even safer being willing to have ontological humility has benefits that are hard to ignore:

  • Learning – simply accepting that there are parallel realities invites us to explore them. Doing so will almost certainly offer us new concepts, information and applications that we were not previously aware of.
  • Relationships – the ontologically arrogant isn’t interested in what others know and their approach will often trigger defensiveness and withdrawal in others. The ontologically humble will lean into a relationship, knowing that the other party has something to add. It is an act of respect and an invitation to share, both of which will serve to heighten the quality of the relationship.
  • Synergy – the core of this approach is to recognize that others think about things differently than we do. If we embrace this to the fullest we are able to see the parts of the other’s perspective that may be superior to ours. Of course our own approach may also have superior elements too and by combining the best we come out ahead.
  • Integrity – one definition of integrity is to act in alignment with one’s values. I don’t know about you, but I don’t carry a value that says it is important to dismiss the opinions of others. Simply by asking for their perspective I will feel a greater sense of integrity.
  • Better results – I can’t prove this so I will just use an ontologically humble perspective: as I think about having greater knowledge, stronger relationships, synergistic thought and a strong sense of integrity, it seems to me that we have raised the probability that we will increase our collective performance, which ought to create better results for us.

The challenge is to recognize our own arrogance in this regard, and understand the source. Do we fear not knowing? Being wrong? Do we feel weak not staking a position? Do we strive to simplify our lives by narrowing possibility?

The beauty of ontological humility is that we don’t have to be any of these things. We just have to be two things: curious and inclusive. Here’s a formula to try:

  1. Mutual purpose – if our realities are conflicting, it’s because there is a conflict (this from the department of redundancy department). If there is a conflict it is because we are talking about something that is important to both of us. Let’s stop first and agree that we understand what we both want and how those things may be related.
  2. Speak not of our reality but of our perspective – we have a valid story to tell, but it is important to recognize that a good portion of it is just that … a story. It is meaningful to us, but if we can step back from it being reality and frame it as our perspective it allows us to consider that other possible realities exist.
  3. Seek to understand the other’s perspective – just as we have a story so does our conversational partner. If we acknowledge that we understand that multiple realities are at play and ask to understand the other’s perspective it invites participation through interest in what is important to them.
  4. Work to find a richer reality – the fruits of an open mind are a greater pool of knowledge, experience and wisdom. Now that each of us can embrace a second perspective we can now lean in to find new and hopefully better ways of moving forward. In problem solving, this may mean a unique and compelling solution previously unknown to either party. In an argument, it may result in understanding how to satisfy your needs and mine, where as before we were going to have to choose between your needs or mine.

But perhaps start with this. Any time you are frustrated with the lack of acceptance, understanding, agreement, cooperation, etc. by someone you are in discussion with step back and ask yourself “is ontological arrogance” at work here?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

6 thoughts on “Ontology (my big word of the month) and Humility

  1. Thanks Ian, insightful and a great topic to discuss within my team.
    Congratulations on finishing the house and Happy New Year!

  2. Hi Ian
    Interesting thoughts!!
    As I approach my current “Frustrations” and think about this concept, I recognize that there is the other person’s realm of reality. My difficulty is often trying to understand their reality without invoking my own reality as a way to agree or not agree. I like the suggestions you offer which may help turn the conversation from confrontational to one of understanding both realities without judging from my own point of reality. If I can invoke thinking “my reality is safe – but I may learn from the other person’s reality” – I “should” be able to hear without judgment. Also listening and “Hearing” does not necessarily say that I have to agree or change my reality – yet it may lead to that.
    Thanks for the blog


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