“The most difficult thing is to get out of our own way. To view the person in front of us as a PERSON, not as an extension of ourselves. To be fully present.”
What does it mean to be fully present with another person? This question has been on my mind, as I deepen my learning and practice as a coach. The concept of presence is central to the coaching practices I'm studying, Integral Coaching (New Ventures West) and Values Coaching (Values Technology). Presence is the primary ingredient of coaching, the foundation on which stands everything else a coaching relationship can be. It is a deceptively simple concept, and something that generally comes naturally to me, and so I find myself taking for granted that I am consistent in my practice of being present and holding space for others. Until a painful experience ran me right up against the reality that this is not always true.
On the day James Flaherty, founder of Integral Coaching and New Ventures West, visited with our cohort to answer questions and share insights, he was asked “What is the most difficult thing about coaching?” This Zen Buddhist in a flannel plaid shirt and flip-flops sat still for a long moment and then responded with the above quote about presence. “…To view the person in front of us as a PERSON, not as an extension of ourselves. To be fully present.” I nodded with understanding, confident that I had it all together, and moved on with the course work for the day.
The next day, on April 21st, my world was shattered by the sudden death of the musician Prince. Prince’s music, and more significantly his unapologetic way of being in the world, changed my life by showing me what it can mean to live one’s full self. Under his example, I could view myself not as the weird artist kid other people couldn’t relate to, but as a powerful and creative force with important contributions to make to the world. He helped me see the ways that art can change us, can help to make us more of who we really are. His music and his story have been important guide posts in the landscape of my life since I was 14 years old.
On the day he died, I had the following text conversation with a dear friend, Anya:
Me: “He, of all people, I visioned making music throughout a long, long life. He was going to make it, he was NOT going to be one of the many amazing artists we lose too young…He was going to be WITH us…and how he’s not.”
Anya: “Our lives are not permanent. We must love hard and press on!”
Why did I see him as permanent? Is it because I didn’t truly see him as a real person? Did not see his humanity, even though he helped me to see mine? We do this to celebrities, don’t we? Many of us project our needs and stories onto them, insist that they shape themselves to the meaning we need made of the world.
Then the disturbing question came to me: Do I also do this to the people around me? To the people I love? To the people I would seek to coach? James Flaherty’s words roared back into my mind, and I knew this moment was a lesson for me in presence.
Presence. In the practice of Values Coaching developed by Brian Hall and Benjamin Tonna, presence is defined as, “The ability to be with another person that comes from inner self-knowledge, which is so contagious that another person is able to ponder the depths of who he or she is with awareness and clarity,” (Hall, 2006). I am drawn to the symmetry here: By knowing myself fully, by living my true self with calm and clarity, those I am in relationship with will experience more freedom to know and express their own true self with deeper clarity. Beautiful.
To do this, to BE this, is my life’s purpose as I have come to understand it over the past two years. This value is a high priority for me, as identified by the Hall-Tonna Values Inventory. In that moment of awareness following Prince's death, I had a precious opportunity to more fully deepen and integrate this value into my life and into my coaching practice. And while it is true that I have this ability, when I sat in honest reflection with myself, I easily found examples of moments when I was with a person who needed my presence, and I was caught up in something that distracted me from my ability to be so. The most common culprits: My ego's desire to be the center of the conversation; feeling anxious about getting it right; and moments when I was listening to respond rather than to understand. These experiences are very common to many of us. It is therefore the coaches first job to be present to our own state of mind; to consistently observe what we are feeling and to be vigilant to our own personal triggers of distraction and disconnection.
These are the discernment questions I now ask myself regularly in the wake of these realizations:
- When today was I fully relaxed into who I am, independent of others’ perceptions of me?
- When today was I preoccupied with the perceptions of others?
- When today was I fully attuned with curiosity and openness to the reality of another person?
- When was I viewing and interacting with another person from the perspective of what I needed from them or needed them to be?
- Where in my body do the feelings associated with these experiences live?
Brene Brown teaches that "Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary," (Rising Strong, p. 210-211). I regret that in all the years I looked to Prince as a model for living an authentic life, I failed to be curious about what challenges and sacrifices he may have been making behind the view of his life that we saw. And I am also deeply grateful that in the moment of grieving, I became open to this deeper layer of understanding of what it means to live my own life authentically and in alignment with my values and purpose.
May we each come to know ourselves so deeply that we can truly come to know and be with another person. Be the kind of person in whose presence others unfold.
**I wrote this post originally on April 28th, 2016, one week after the legendary musician, Prince, died. As we approach the first anniversary of his death (on April 21st, 2016), the lesson his death taught me about presence is at the top of my heart, and I wish to share this revised version here.