The secret to powerful coaching is both simple and profound – it is about being completely present and open to the person in front of you. Coaching is a co-created relationship; as coaches we need to find this ‘presence’ in ourselves if we are to ask for openness in our clients. Easy as this may sound, it is a lifetime practice. It’s nothing to do with having found ‘the answer’. We are not gurus or sages; far from it, we share the same struggles and flaws as everyone else. But coaching is built on offering full and undivided attention, free from preconception and judgement. This takes self-knowledge, self-acceptance and a fair bit of self-management and, even then, most coaches would admit that staying present is a challenge.
I really want the best for my clients; I want them to see the potential and possibility that I witness in them and I want them to experience adventure, love, fulfilment and self-acceptance. In service of what my clients want for themselves I try to bring every part of myself to the relationship and to quiet my own voices of judgement, self-doubt and, possibly the noisiest one, the desire to help. In other words, I try to cultivate being fully available to the person in front of me.
For me, the real magic and impact of coaching comes when a person feels seen and heard – often for the first time – in all their glorious imperfection and beauty. This was brought home to me by a client who told me: ‘This is the only place I feel I bring my whole self, where I really talk and think about what I want, rather than what others expect of me’ . We are so used to splitting ourselves off into different parts and only showing the bits that fit the role (manager/partner/employee/parent/student…) that it can be an amazing relief to have the permission to just be oneself – with no judgement and no expectation, except to be true to oneself.
"....it can be an amazing relief to have the permission to just be oneself – with no judgement and no expectation, except to be true to oneself."
There are no short cuts to achieving the coaching competence of ‘presence’ – it is the one skill that coaching training cannot teach. Coaches find it in their own ways. We learn how to quiet our inner monologue and to trust our intuition but the experience of presence is something that is only really achieved in practice. In Co-Active Coaching (my own training), we come close to understanding it when we talk about the importance of ‘being’ not ‘doing’ – it is the hyphen, the space between the ‘co’ and the ‘active’, that is important. Presence is a state of being, a way of paying attention, not something that you do.
This is where the language starts to get slippery. But it’s important to find the words for the experience because I believe that presence is the defining core of coaching, closely followed by intuition and heart-centred practice. It’s all about our common humanity and what connects us. When we bear witness to another person – whether it is their joy, their dreams, or their suffering and pain – something happens in that space between us that is transformational. It is in this space, this hyphen, that people find the resilience, the self-confidence, the new beliefs – or whatever it is they seek. They find what they seek because they feel whole, appreciated and seen – not because they have been coached in a set of techniques to get them there. They reach a place of vulnerability and truth and from here there is a natural imperative towards action.
"They find what they seek because they feel whole, appreciated and seen – not because they have been coached in a set of techniques to get them there. "
The coach’s role does not stop at bearing witness – the coach is also there to provide challenge. Clients trust us with their vulnerability and the coach’s job is to support our clients in taking courageous action, knowing what the stakes are.
The sound of silence
The ability to listen is a pre-condition of coaching presence and coaches are trained to listen in a very particular way. I listen with my whole self and I hear not just the words but what is behind the words. I am filled with curiosity. What is the lived experience of this person right now? What treasures does this person have inside? What does she yearn for and what holds her back? What is he not saying? What is he dreaming? What does his inner critic whisper in his ear? Some of these questions are voiced, others are not. I engage my heart as well as my head. I listen to my own body and what it tells me and I pay attention to images and ideas that my intuition sends me. I share these with my client – sometimes they ring true, sometimes they fall flat. We talk, we explore ideas, metaphors and try on different perspectives. Then we may come to a place of silence and I may find myself at a loss. I don’t know where this is going. And that’s ok. It’s not my job to take it anywhere. Then, out of nowhere, comes this moment of connection where something true and complete sits between us. It sounds magical, and it is in a way, but everyone knows this experience. It’s what is left when we strip away the busy-ness of daily life and sit together in this present moment as two human beings.