Research endeavors to tease out those magical ingredients that make for effective and successful coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy. What are those key factors, those strategies, those approaches that help our clients make the changes they most desire? Quantitative research is scattered in its outcome results. They try to isolate the major factors and conditions that have high satisfaction and success results for clients. However there are so many variables that it is difficult to actually harness the significant magic bullet with any kind of validity. In qualitative research where the approach is more holistic and grounded in the complexity of the lived experience of clients, the picture becomes a little clearer. Clients describe and report that it is the quality of the relationship that is the main catalyst for changes in their lives and these results remain consistent over any particular approach or technique. Clients report report experiences of being “seen and heard”, of being “understood”, “accepted”, etc., and refer to such practioner qualities as warmth, genuineness, and presence.
In my 40 years experience in working with clients from all age groups, I cannot think of a more powerful ability than being present. Over these years I have come to appreciate and to rely increasingly on my capacity to show up and to be fully there for my clients and to monitor my impulses to rush into solutions and strategies. Solutions are important but cannot have resonance without first being aligned with the client’s experience. They emerge. Without returning over and over again to presence, I may miss aligning with the client’s passion, desire, and energy and lose the focus of change that is most important to the client. By presence I mean deeply listening to their experiences and not being distracted by thinking of the next strategy or projecting your own solutions that have little relevance to the client. Being present involves embracing the nuances of the client’s experience moment to moment, being aware of the nuances and the energy that becomes available in this diad on being in the present together. An excellent coach knows how to read and align with this present unfolding energy. The quality that supports this energetic field of possibility is presence. The coach works in a fashion that stays as close as possible to the client’s expressed experience.
As coaches, we identify with being effective change agents and thus get locked into looking for strategies that support those desired changes. We are attached to being effective and become attached to solutions and techniques. If our identification as strategist and change agent becomes more important than meeting the client where he/she is, we are focusing ahead and strategizing prematurely and that brings us right out of the present moment and the information that needs to unfold in that moment. In fact, without presence, there is a danger of losing the coaching relationship prematurely because often we won’t be working in the most important place for the client. We won’t have “gotten them”. We need that energy emerging from being present with our clients, and only from that place can we begin to strategize and to support the direction that is next step.
Being present is a practice we can cultivate. It is like a muscle that can be exercised. Being present is a capacity to stay deeply connected to ourselves and that capacity extends to our clients and ultimately the world. There is nothing complicated, remote or esoteric about the practice of presence, although it is at once very simple and very difficult. But the practice and the experience is available to all of us. It helps to contact, restore and strengthen our connection to our deepest selves. It is indeed a “present” that is both healing and strengthening and expanding. My colleague and friend, Dr. Tom Yeomans defines “presence” in the following way:
“The experience of presence is a central aspect of human psychological health and maturity. It is the capacity to be fully present to what is happening within, and around, oneself in the present moment and not be drawn into distractions, reactions, projections, or defenses. It enables us to respond rather than react. In common parlance presence is often described as “being centered”
Freedom and capacity is released from being centered. It is that place where the flow of greatest energy and truth emerge. It is the place where a ability to choose is best available. It is a portal to authentic change.
I leave you with a sample of an exercise that can help you develop the capacity for more presence in your life:
- Sit in a comfortable, alert position and close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and begin to follow its movement without changing it in any way.
- Become aware, in this movement, of the natural rhythm of your breathing and begin to let yourself rest in that rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.
- Let this rhythm gradually become a place of rest for you, where you can let go of any preoccupations and simply remain with the movement of your breath in and out of your body.
- If thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise in your experience, acknowledge them, but then return your attention to your breathing, so that you remain in the center as they come and go.
When first starting the practice of presence, just open up to the experience and what it is like. With practice our center becomes stronger, we find that we can sustain our presence for longer periods of time and in more difficult situations. Eventually it does become a capacity and a habit which contributes to our effectiveness and we can draw on automatically In any ongoing practice of presence, we learn just how distracted we can become by our sensations, feelings, thoughts that shape our inner world. This is normal. The actual practice is in gently and consistently escorting our attention back to the present moment. In ongoing practice of presence, we learn just how often we can become distracted and how often we are pulled away from the present moment, and the important attitude to our practice is just to notice and redirect without judgment or evaluation. In doing this you are building important skills: moving out of reactivity and impulse driven behaviour, developing a detached and observing eye to your experience, cultivating a habit of non judgement, and allowing and developing a trust for the flow of change from moment to moment. Ultimately the practice of presence in our professional and personal spheres can strengthen and support a growing calm solidity and serenity to our lives and our work. It’s a simple practice with extraordinary outcomes.