Those moments when we lose presence…
by Amanda Ridings
In coaching and supervision practice, being present is such a ‘holy grail’ that I risk my reputation in saying that I am currently fascinated by the moments when I lose presence, or times when I’m not able to be present enough. As I study this element of my practice, I find that ‘being present’ is more elusive than I might readily allow! Influenced by my deepening understanding of meditation (in the Kagyu Buddhist tradition) and my continuing development in Leadership Embodiment practices and T’ai Chi Chuan, I’m exploring the extent to which I’m able to:
- be present in different circumstances; and
- recover the quality of my attention in moments when it is most needed.
This article outlines some of my personal journey, and sets out my next steps, as I begin to support other practitioners in a similar exploration.
My starting place is Edna Murdoch’s tenet ‘who we are is how we coach/supervise’, which feels like a call to see and experience myself as clearly as possible, warts and all. Like most people, I prefer to deny, or cover up, some of the less palatable aspects of my nature – I’m adept at ‘hiding’ these intellectually, but am discovering that my body expresses them in their full glory! I’ve been supported in this realisation by Leadership Embodiment practices, developed by Wendy Palmer, which make visible (and palpable) some of my foibles. The practices have also been central to raising my sensitivity to whether I am present (or not).
A significant challenge with concepts like ‘presence’ and ‘being present’ is that we are seeking to articulate an experience that, in its most profound form, is beyond words. To expand on this, consider some questions:
- As coaches and supervisors, what do we actually mean by ‘being present’?
- Is ‘being present’ a state, or a quality/tone of our energy or attention, or something else entirely?
- To what or whom are we ‘being present’?
- What is the difference between ‘being present’ and ‘presence’ (if any)?
I speculate that twenty coaches will answer these questions in (at least) twenty ways! Even if I find a form of words that fully encapsulates the meaning of ‘being present’, I’m not sure how this helps me in my practice, especially in moments of difficulty or stretch. For me, defining the term matters less than my capacity for, and acuity in, recognising my embodied experience: how do I know when I am being present, and when not? This means sensing variations on an energetic or physiological level.
Tuning into nuanced changes in our body is a skill we can cultivate. If we believe that ‘who we are is how we coach/supervise’, an important aspect of our development as a practitioner is becoming deeply aware of, and familiar with, small changes in our physiology.
There are many ways of cultivating this skill. The acceleration in my own journey came through Leadership Embodiment practices. Crucially, these practices draw on principles from martial arts and mindfulness to increase our capacity to be present even in moments of stretch or stress. Using mild physical pressure as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological pressure of the testing moments in our practice, we can refine our ability to recognise the impact of them. The practices also offer an approach to recovering presence, with a corresponding enrichment of our options for working with our client.
The power of this approach in my practice as a coach and supervisor is that my body gives me energetic ‘data’ about a situation before my mind grasps it. I can use this early prompt to recover from any tightening or loosening in my attention before I get caught in a habitual tendency such as rescuing, or reassuring, or drifting away from the contract.
As an accredited Leadership Embodiment teacher, I use the practices with my clients, but their greatest value has been in my own development. For example, many years ago, a coach supervisor reflected on the intensity with which I listened. She went on to wonder about the effect on my clients, with an implication that it might be limiting or burdening the client. At the time, I missed the point: could there be such a thing as ‘over-listening’?
Although I didn’t accept this challenge at the time, it left a trace of curiosity, which enabled me to recognise the issue several years later when I encountered it in a Leadership Embodiment setting. In an activity to contrast the impact of centred listening with under-engaged listening and over-engaged listening, I saw and felt the energetic impact of paying too much attention. I also experienced a corresponding loss in my own presence and centre. In seeing myself clearly, I was able to change my practice.
My belief in the power of these practices has encouraged me to share them with other practitioners. Recently, I hosted a ‘masterclass’ for the Academy of Executive Coaching, making explicit the relevance of Leadership Embodiment practices to coaching practice. This first step was well-received and, supported locally by fellow CSA graduate Viv Chitty, this year I am offering a full Leadership Embodiment ‘level 1’ programme for coaches and coach supervisors. The programme starts at the end of March and takes place in Brighton. For more information click here, or email me at Amanda@originate.org.uk