Of all the things one might learn in this modern age of information, getting a handle on our communication can be one of the most rewarding and potentially transformative. Why? For two simple reasons: it is our primary medium for interfacing with other human beings, and an integral part of our relationship with ourselves.
Over the years of teaching classes on Mindful Communication, I’ve developed an approach to learning communication skills that brings powerful and lasting results in students, the cornerstone of which is developing presence.
In my own study and practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I’ve been continually amazed by the power of presence as a prerequisite for clear, effective, and compassionate communication. In my workshops and retreats, I often start by pointing out that if we want to have a conversation with someone, first we need to be HERE. After all, how are we to really listen, or to know what’s true for ourselves, if we’re not present to begin with?
So what is “presence,” anyway?
I define presence as an embodied, real-time awareness of our moment to moment experience. It is akin to Gendlin’s “felt-sense” (Focusing), and encompasses both the somatic and affective dimensions of experience. I invite you to try a brief experiment: pause for a moment right now, take a deep breath, and notice what you feel as and after your exhale. Can you feel your body? How about whatever emotional tone is there in the heart? This living, breathing, feeling-ness of your experience: that’s presence!
Having presence for a moment is easy and readily accessible. Staying connected to presence continually is harder, and takes training. It’s amazing how hard it is to stay here once we open our mouths! In fact, the tendency to lose our presence is even stronger: we often leave it as soon as we open our eyes and begin to look around, even more so with another human being.
(Of course, there are exceptions: like the intimacy we feel in romantic relationships, or moments of heightened awareness in nature. In these experiences, it is precisely the combination of deep presence in connection with another or our surroundings that creates their potency).
I see so many benefits to developing a strong sense of presence: increased self-connection; clarity of purpose; access to our feelings and needs; more inner space to hear others without losing connection to ourselves; release and healing from negative emotions and thought-patterns; to mention just a few.
Presence provides a ground to know what’s true in the moment
Many times I have sat with students, coaching them moment after moment to return to presence as a guide, a reliable source of information about the truth of their own experience. With presence, we can break the spell-like pull of our thoughts and judgments, and return to the truth of our actual experience, of what is alive in the moment. The more presence informs and accompanies our speaking and listening, the more strength and clarity we have to respond wisely in the moment.
Presence creates a container for intensity
Relationships, dialogue, and life in general all come with a certain degree of intensity. A flood of sensation or emotional energy can overwhelm us and prevent us from thinking, speaking or acting in line with our intentions. At these times, we lose presence simply due to the force of our own or another’s feelings and reactivity. Training in presence allows us to expand our own container for this kind of intensity, slowly giving us more and more space inside to tolerate what we feel without losing balance.
Empathy without presence is like a massage without touch. It’s empty of meaning and ineffective. Just as massage means a kind of touch, empathy means a kind of presence: one with genuine care. This has the power to heal. Training in the NVC form of empathy (reflecting feelings and needs) can sometimes become robotic and disconnect us from real empathy – which depends on qualities of genuine interest, care and presence in our heart. When pain is met with this kind of caring presence – be it our own, or another’s – something magical happens. The pain eases. It opens and unfolds like a bud in spring. Scientific research studies have borne out this truth in many ways, but you don’t need numbers or fMRIs to know that being received with presence feels good!
So how to do we train in presence? Mindfulness practices like sitting, standing, or walking with awareness are a primary foundation. But there are many other ways to support presence in our lives, like staying connected to a chosen quality of intention, knowing how we’re feeling, or slowing down our pace of movement or speech even just slightly.