I prepared this for the Annual Transformative Coaching Summit. I was unable to do the session due to illness. Please do email me with anything that comes to your mind as you read and think about this: firstname.lastname@example.org. Julia Vaughan Smith.
Here are just some of my reflections on this aspect of our practice. I start by reflecting on Presence and then move to explore my thoughts about ‘Fake’ Presence and Absencing. Trying to describe Presence in cognitive terms rather misses the point as it is all about Being - an internal state and experience. Having said that, I will do my best to articulate what I think it is.
Presence and being present are key aspects within coaching and therapy. Our capacity to attune and connect to the client enables us to be with what is, to listen intently and feel a resonance with the other. It is also what helps create a sense of safety, essential when working with personal change and growth.
The term Presence sometimes implies that the practice is straightforward , however, having practised as an Executive Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisor for many years I can tell you it is not. It is something we need to learn how to do and have to work through those elements within us that stop us or take us into fake presence, absencing and distancing.
‘Fake presence’ is a term I am using to refer to our capacity to appear to be present on the outside, while not being present on the inside. I am assuming that many of us have experienced this, I certainly have. This is part of our protective armour against intimacy, having been vulnerable and hurt in the past, as children and maybe later in life. It is part of our internalised trauma response and a form of absencing ourselves from connection. Absence is the opposite of Presence. It is a way of desensitising ourselves. ‘Fake presence’ and absencing are not consciously created but a response to the situation; we can become aware that this is what we are doing or remain unaware.
Our personal growth lies in recognising the difference between Presence and ‘fake presence’ and absencing. Working with our own trauma dynamics allows us to be as fully present as we can be more of the time.
Let’s start first with some definitions of the word Presence:
It is also the name of an album by Led Zeppelin for any of you old enough to remember that highly successful group from the 1970s!
How I am using it in coaching and therapy is related to the first two of these but is more than just being present in the room with another; it is about being able to be in the present moment and feel the presence of the other through emotional attunement. That is, through Presence, we are able to resonate with the energy of the other. It means we feel the other within ourselves while remaining aware of ourselves in the moment. As Thomas Hubl1 says ‘we can feel us feeling the other feeling us’. It is subtly different to empathy which is a cognitive or emotional state, where we can connect with the situation of another.
‘Presence is a heightened awareness of our momentary bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts, which can expand out into a presence for others, attuned to their feelings and thoughts” Connie Zweig2
Presence is about no past, no future, just now, this moment. Without the capacity to be fully present, we can’t have emotional attunement; without emotional attunement we don’t have safety, and without safety we can’t have transformative coaching.
If we are present, that is, grounded in the here and now, without thoughts from the past or about the future, but just with what is – while also being able to observe ourselves – we have the capacity for deep listening, witnessing, a sense of inner spaceousness and connectivity with the other. We can let go of ‘knowing’ and certainty, bringing ourselves fully into the encounter and opening up to the other.
Attunement to the other, requires that we can attune to ourselves and our inner experience within our body, emotions and mind. Meditation can teach this.
There is a link with the social engagement phase of Dr Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory3, where we are calm, self-regulated (that is heartbeat and breathing slow and normal), curious, compassionate and open hearted to the other. Our facial muscles are relaxed and our eyes soft. We convey safety to the other.
The term Presence came into use in organisational consulting fields in 2009 with the work of Dr Otto Scharmer and Theory U4. Theory U is concerned with how we come to collective new ideas and solutions within systems. It is a process used within groups wishing to bring about systems change. He refers to Presencing a process of letting go of our ego, old patterns and certainties to connect with a deeper source of knowing. For this he states we need an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will. From this process, the future can emerge, not from an idea but from within.
There are similarities with how I am using Presence. We do need to let go of our ego needs and the need ‘to know’ or to have certainty, and we do need an open mind and an open heart. Roshi Joan Halifax5 talks of the need for leadership and compassion, to have a strong back, a soft front and an open heart.
Pause: take stock within yourself
Check in with yourself right now, how present in the moment do you feel? Is your mind running about the past or the future? Is your mind critiquing as I go along?
Check in with your body, is it grounded? What about your breathing, just take a moment to notice it. Without judgement, just notice. If you feel nothing in your body, that is okay. Honour and respect whatever comes up as you sit with yourself.
Why is it important?
We know from childhood studies that the capacity of key care-givers, particularly the mother to attune to her child is key to their emotional development and to positive learning about themselves.
Our first mirror is our mother’s eyes, as stated by Dr Donald Winnicott6. If this, along with that of other care-givers is loving and attuned, we learn that it is safe to be in emotional connection with another, and from that we learn how to be in emotional contact with ourselves.
In coaching, counselling and therapy, we want to create a safe space, where the client can feel met, seen and can enter into fully as themselves. While this is difficult for some or many clients due to their trauma experience or neuro-diversity, it is our role to offer them our Presence.
Such a space can offer clients the chance to bring themselves into a calm state, from which they can better observe themselves, their behaviour and thinking patterns, do the best thinking they can and connect with their emotional experience. This all supports personal growth and learning.
We can only help clients to achieve their intentions if we can open ourselves to their presence, connect with them emotionally/phenomonologically as well as cognitively. That means being able to feel them within us, without merging with them or identifying with them or taking their emotions away with us.
To understand being present we need to understand fake presence, absencing and distancing
‘Fake presence’ is when we can appear to be physically present, maybe even our body is relaxed and breathing calm but we are not open to the other, our mind is in charge. Or we may feel numb in our body and emotions, within awareness or not.
To the other person, we may look as if we are present and available to them, and part of us might be, but other parts are not, they are closed off from the other- they are avoiding that connection. We distance ourselves, leaving a mask in place but stepping back so that we do not feel the other; clients will of course sense this but may not be able to describe what feels lacking. Absencing ourselves is another term for this withdrawal; it is the opposite of attunement. We can absent ourselves without using ‘fake presence’, in that situation it is clear, from the quality of our attention and physicality that we are not connected with the other.
As children some of us developed the capacity to look as if we were listening and attending in class but weren’t. Obviously, any exam results challenged that, but in the moment we could fake it. Some people have developed that capacity to ‘send out’ a persona who engages with the outer world while the feeling person is kept safely hidden from the other. You may have experienced this is some clients, that they appear engaged and on board with the coaching but you feel you are not really connecting with them, that there is something missing.
The reasons for faking presence and absencing are similar and all are due to the ‘there and then’ of our past experience operating in the ‘here and now’ of the relationship; or when we are very preoccupied with something outside the present encounter.
Many of us find it hard to let go of thoughts about the future, possibly the outcomes of coaching and how we will be viewed, and perhaps memories of the past. We may cling on to knowing and certainty, feeling vulnerable without that. Parts within us may be agitated with the coaching encounter or in relation to something outside of it. Aspects of our psyche may not like the other, or warm to them or feel unsafe with them, and fearing repercussions we fake our Presence or absent ourselves.
We may seek a connection to meet our own unmet needs for love or belonging from the past and become entangled. We may identify with the other believing that this is connecting with them but instead we have let go of our separateness and see us as ‘one’ with the client. From this position we can wrongly believe that we know what the client needs to do or how they should live. This is an entanglement.
Sometimes ‘faking presence’ and absencing can be a good protector and we need to honour our capacity to use it, it kept us safe as children and in some relationships since. In coaching it is helpful to know when we are doing that and why, so that we can open up the space within for greater Presence.
Faking presence and absencing can be out of our awareness, and usually is until we engage in personal reflection afterwards or as we catch ourselves being out of connection in a session or interaction. Our clients can ‘fake presence’ and absent and distant with us too, and some will be if they don’t feel safe or if they have had poor experiences with trust and intimacy.
Not everyone can have an attuned felt experience, those who are neurodiverse and those who carry internalised trauma may find it challenging. As a trauma response, we can close down the connection between body, emotions and mind, and leave only the mind relating. This is a protective mechanism from a time when it was intelligent to do that.
Why do we become avoidant or fake it? And what happens when we do?
Faking, avoidance/distancing/absencing and merger are all protective/defensive responses to an intimate emotional contact with another. The roots to this probably lie in childhood and may have been reinforced by certain relationships in adulthood. Trust in the other, feeling safe with the other is very difficult so we use these responses to protect ourselves. When we developed these protectors, they were our childhood heroes, they enabled us to survive relationships that we experienced as unsafe, and for that they need to be honoured and respected.
Dissociation is a more extreme form of distancing and is a symptom of being in the ‘freeze and fragment’ phase of a trauma dynamic. Here, the person is out of connection with themselves and with the other person, they have shut down and psychically withdrawn. It is a coping mechanism within some who are traumatised or under considerable stress, activating earlier trauma.
Trying to ‘get rid of’ or engaging with self-criticism about these strategies is unhelpful and makes things worse. We need to engage with them, understand them, appreciate what they are trying to do and reflect on why we needed them.
If we meet them in clients, it is important to do the same. Respect that they are there and that, right now, the client doesn’t feel safe enough to be open-minded and open-hearted with us. They feel the need to protect themselves. As long as we can stay present and fully open to the client, they may gradually feel safer. They may not. These survival protective strategies are the ‘there and then’ entering the ‘here and now’; they are from the past and are deeply established habits.
If it is relevant to the client’s coaching intentions, we may choose to share our experience with a client whom we experience as distancing, without judgement, and share that we notice it seems difficult for the client to connect with us and wonder about that with them. We may not, it depends how we contract, and work, with clients.
How do we stay present when the other is in avoidance/not connecting?
A real challenge is how to stay in Presence when the other isn’t. It is much easier when the other can meet us from that place, but many can’t. Younger parts of our psyche can be activated through the lack of connection from the other. It may activate earlier childhood experiences and we may switch into protective behaviour. This might involve talking too much, directing the session too much, telling ourselves we are failing as a coach, or just letting the client talk without connection. Our mind gets active and our hearts close up.
If you notice this happening, pay attention to your breathing, trying to calm yourself, and bring yourself back to a grounded position; become attuned to yourself. Focus on the client and your felt experience of them, become curious rather than judgemental, become connected rather than distanced, open up to a connection.
Never diagnose the other, as that is part of distancing
As with all discussions about relational behaviour it is important to recognise that some behaviour that is associated with a trauma response can alternatively be an element of neurodiversity. It is important that we never label a client as traumatised or make a diagnosis, we are not qualified to do that, and if we do. we are taking up an expert role where ‘knowing’ has become important. We have also turned the client into an object. In Presence, we meet the other as they are.
What have you learnt about how to develop your ability to be fully present? How can you tell you are Present?
Some of my reflections are:
I know when I am Present when:
How I have learnt to develop my ability to be fully Present:
I feel I have only scratched the surface. I hope, though, that it might stimulate some reflections and observations which are valuable for you and your clients.
1 Thomas Hubl https://thomashuebl.com/
2 Connie Zweig. ‘The Inner Work of Age’. Park Street Press. 2021
5 Roshin Joan Halifax.’Standing at the Edge’. Flatiron Books. 2018
6 Dr Donald Winnicott, British Paediatrician and Psychoanalyst 1889 – 1971
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