By Chris Chittenden
The work of Ken Wilber has been incorporated into the Newfield Network approach to ontological coaching. I am unsure whether it is included in the Newfield Institute approach.
The work of current day American philosopher, Ken Wilber, draws many parallels with the ontological approach. In his books, ‘A Brief History of Everything’ and ‘A Theory of Everything’, Wilber defined three domains that he claimed encompassed all aspects of human concern and action. He called these the ‘Big Three’ – The ‘I’, the ‘We’ and the ‘It’.
1. The ‘I’ domain refers to our individual internal subjective experience that is unique to each of us.
As we have seen, we each experience the world as we do and cannot truly know how others experience it, even though it is easy to fool ourselves into believing we can do so. This domain can be seen to include such things as our beliefs, private conversations, physical sensations, emotions and so on. Even though we can share our experiences with others through conversation, we can never have someone else’s experience. In other words, the ‘I’ domain is the ‘domain of the self’.
2. The ‘We’ domain refers to the domain of community (collective) subjective experience that we might share with others.
This domain relates to our shared subjective experiences with others. This can be seen as a community’s culture and involves the ‘meta-narratives’ that speak to how we do things within this community – its shared conversations, moods, standards, values, beliefs and ways of relating and so on. The ‘We’ domain is the ‘domain of relationships’.
3. The ‘It’ domain relates to our perception of objectivity.
As Wilber says,
"It-language is objective, neutral, value-free surfaces. This is the standard language of the empirical, analytic, and systems sciences, from physics to biology to ecology to cybernetics to positivistic sociology to behaviourism to systems theory."
In other words, it is monological. It is a monologue with surfaces, with ‘its’. It-language describes objective exteriors and their interrelations, observable patterns that can be seen with the senses or their instrumental extensions – whether those empirical surfaces are ‘inside’ you, like your brains or lungs, or ‘outside’ you, like ecosystems."
As Wilber indicates, the ‘It’ domain is one where we observe the surface of objects with our senses. We do not need others to observe the ‘It’ domain; we can do it by ourselves. The ‘It’ domain is the basis of the rational approach to living and is the domain of science, measurement, observation and the tangible.
We can easily align the ‘Big Three’ to the basic premise. It still follows that we can only experience our inner life; however we can use our immense capacity for interpretation to relate to the ‘We’ and ‘It’ domains. In the ‘We’ domain, we can seek to understand and relate to others’ experience by developing our own self-awareness and distinctions about how other people may have their life experience. In the ‘It’ domain, we can draw on techniques, such as the scientific method, to develop a deeply-rooted and well-grounded shared subjectivity that is defined as ‘objectivity’.
When we look at these domains in terms of the human condition, we can see that the ‘It’ domain relates to what we observe (the phenomena), whereas the ‘I’ and ‘We’ domains are focused on how we interpret what we have observed (our individual and shared explanations or stories about the phenomena).
More often than not, the ‘It’ domain is where members of western society focus their attention. Our society is one where we tend to look at the world as though everything can be measured and those measurements tell us everything we need to know about life, the universe and everything. We seek the ‘Truth’ without realising we can only ever have a human version of the universe. Yet we seem to have an obsession with measurement in today’s world. This seems particularly so in the business world, where organisations seek to measure everything with a view to having more control over their activity . Ironically, by focusing so one dimensionally on the ‘It’ domain and ignoring the ‘I’ and ‘We’ domains, they may feel more in control but that sense is more myth than actuality.
The ‘Big Three’ are based on a premise that there is more to the human condition than just what we observe at the surface. It is about moving beyond the surface and into the experience and a world of interpretation; transcending the ‘It’ by including the ‘I’ and the ‘We’.
To speak about the ‘Big Three’ is not to put any one domain over the others. Rather to fully understand the human condition and human action, it is vital to explore each of these domains and the coherence between them. If we do not, we limit our interpretations and, as a result, our ability to take effective action.
If you wish to live a more fulfilling life then you may find great value in exploring the domains of the ‘Big Three’ and how they show up in your life. You can start to do this by examining where you spend your time in each domain in comparison to where you believe you would like to spend it. Such an exercise can open new doors of self-understanding and often uncover breakdowns to be addressed.
This is often a valuable exercise for people who are transitioning from being a technical expert to being a people manager. As a technical expert, they may well decide they should spend the majority of their time in the ‘It’ domain, but this generally shifts to the ‘I’ and ‘We’ domains in their new role.