What do you think: Do you see the world as it is? Or do you see the world as you are?

When we are faced with a problem or an area of life that is not flowing as we would like it to, we often seem to focus on the “world out there” as if the problem exists independently of us and how we see any of the problem, the world or ourselves.

The maxim “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Anonymous, possibly Kant*) is oft-quoted (eg. Anais Nin, Steven Covey) when authors explore the idea that we may each see the world differently.

I love this quote,. It ponders the nature of the “the world” (things) and the nature of ourselves as observers of the world (which includes ourselves as we are part of the world). If we each see things as we are then we each see them differently (since we are unique individuals) and we are each living in different “realities”. Our reality, while unique, will share some significant elements with the people around us, in part because we have similar biological structures (we share being human), and to the extent that we have shared cultures and histories.

I find this notion exciting because it implies that how I see the world, and thus my experience of reality can change if I change only some aspect of how I am. Said another way, if I shift my being then I must (I cannot not) get a new perspective on the world and on myself from which new possibilities for my living and action may arise.

Some interesting questions come to mind:

  • “How come I observe what I observe? and
  • “What is it about me as an observer that I see and hear things the way I do?”

We can explore this idea through the concepts of second-order learning, distinctions and being.

We are constantly interested in getting results, or gaining desired outcomes so that things improve and we move forward and progress. When we are dissatisfied with the results we typically may reflect upon our action, or behaviour, and review how we could have done things differently which could have produced more satisfactory results.
Engaging in this reflection and review is a learning process in which there is a willingness and an openness to change what we have been doing. This ability to stand back and reconsider can place us in a more advantageous position about taking effective action in future situations. This is a valid and important form of learning and is termed first-order learning.

However, in this approach we take our observations for granted; it does not deal with the issue of exploring what is behind me observing circumstances in the way I do. Thus, the role of the observer is neglected in first order learning.
Potentially a more powerful form of learning is available to us if we reflect in a different way – the focus of reflection being not upon the action, but on the observer and the way he or she views the situation. This takes us to the heart of the notion of the observer and second-order learning.”

An observer can only observe those things which they can notice as distinct from everything else. Our first limitation is that we can distinguish only things which our senses can detect – human beings for example can only detect sound within a narrow range of acoustic frequencies. You can for example blow a dog whistle which seems to you to make no sound but causes your dog to come running.

However, even within the frequency band that we can detect, we will not observe things that we don’t know how to distinguish. For example, I take my car to a mechanic who can determine whether or not my engine needs adjusting by the time I have parked the car. He does this by recognising particular sound patterns from the engine that he can clearly distinguish. When I listen to the car I can distinguish only the sound of a car engine running. If he took the time to explain to me what he is listening for, then with practice, I could learn the distinctions and be able to observe when my care needed tuning.
Learning (or discovering) new distinctions expands the power of our observation of the world.

2nd order learning
Second-order learning focuses on observing the observer and making changes at the level of the observer rather than directly changing the behaviour or actions of the observer (1st order learning). With first-order learning, while we make changes to the actions we take, we can do so only within the range of actions that it is at that time possible for us to take. Second-order learning changes the range of actions that it is possible for us to take – it expands what is possible for us. We can then choose what action to take from a newly expanded selection.

How can I best observe the observer?
Way of being with language emotions and bodyOntological coaching offers a set of distinctions for observing the being of the observer (“how we are”, to return to the original quote) based on an interpretation of the nature of being for humans. The interpretation offered here is that our being consists of a continual inter-relationship between three arenas or domains of our living – language, emotions and body.

The way we use language, and the distinctions we have available to us through language, heavily shape how we view a situation. Within the arena of language we can learn new distinctions and also observe how our use of language creates our reality and can generate more productive realities.

Our emotions colour how we see the world. We are always in some emotional state, and some emotions can be more pervasive than others. Observing our emotions, how they contribute to generating our reality, and how we can manage them, is pivotal in second-order learning and becoming a more powerful observer.

A much-neglected part of our learning about our being is the domain of the body. We embody our moods as well as our attitudes and expectations. Over time we subtly configure our body to reflect these and this configuration perpetuates our perspectives and orientation in life. To neglect the body as a distinction and a source of important learning is to seriously short change ourselves in moving towards becoming a more powerful observer.

Problems, possibilities and solutions do not exist independently of the observer. Who or what we regard as a problem, the possibilities we see for change, improvement and growth, and the solutions we think will work, depend on the type of observer we are.

When we shift how we observe, we see a different world of problems, possibilities and solutions.

Please share this post with your friends and colleagues if you found it useful.


I give deep thanks: to the original developers of Ontological Coaching including Fernando Flores and Rafael Echeverria; to the lineage of thinkers and philosophers who informed them, including Humberto Maturana, and to Alan Sieler (with whom I studied coaching) who has extended and masterfully documented these ideas and practices. This blog is based in part on an article by Alan Sieler entitled “On becoming a Different and More Powerful Observer” http://www.newfieldinstitute.com.au/html/articles_OCCT_008.html

* http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/ (accessed 20/03/2016)