The great American poet Walt Whitman wrote that, “we convince by our presence.” That piece of wisdom continues to guide many. Everyone we engage with is to some extent affected by us. As coaches or leaders, we must be particularly conscious of the impact of our presence. Still, while the concept of presence is becoming well known in leadership, management, and coaching circles, the term remains difficult to define.
What is Presence?
As an author and Gestalt-based coach, I define presence as how a person shows up in the moment as the embodiment of purpose and with awareness of that moment’s dynamics.
Paying attention infuses presence: it means being able to recognize what is emerging from the available “data” in the moment. Sometimes, for example, the data is physical:“I need something to eat or drink.” Sometimes the data is an emotional cue:“I’d like to see or talk with someone I love.” Sometimes we pick up on a language cue that suggests a colleague needs our help or support. Different issues elicit different data points, and being present means we’re able to sense and articulate those cues.
Acting on those cues in the moment can lead to satisfaction; missing the opportunity to act can lead to regret.
The Importance of Presence
Presence is crucially relevant in our fast-moving world. It helps us see beyond the old “information paradigm,” in which the techniques that many know and have learned can be adequately imposed on the immediacy of experience. Instead, remaining adaptive and resilient is key today, and strengthening our presence is the relevant resource for that.
Our presence, in turn, may also affect how others around us are feeling or thinking because we are “wired” to be influenced by others. As an adaptive part of human development, we are sensitive to picking up cues from others. When these cues are positive, we resonate towards that person. When the cues are negative, or dissonant, we move away.
The Seven Dimensions of Presence
Presence is a powerful energetic phenomenon, but we often don’t have the right words to understand what it is or how to use it for positive outcomes for ourselves and others. To decode and demystify presence, I propose that each person has seven dimensions which influence the presence that we embody. Those dimensions are:
- Self (Somatic) Awareness: Our body is like a GPS in recording sensory data that we need to recognize
- Creativity: Our capacity for curiosity and innovation
- Emotional Intelligence: Our capacity to access the full range of emotions
- Caring & Connection: Our capacity to feel empathy and compassion
- Communication: Our agility in connecting and influencing others
- Intuition: Our ability to access information as hunches or sudden thoughts
- Scanning the Field: Our capacity to recognize opportunities and threats
These dimensions can be strengthened through consistent practice.
Use of one’s presence requires being able to act on perceived cues. Are you able to identify and effectively respond to what is wanted, needed, or missing in the current situation?
Use-of-self is a skill developed through practice, which means you’ll sometimes fail, but be willing to learn from that failure. Creativity as one dimension of presence allows for the vulnerability of failure but also the courage to try again.
Use of one’s presence also means being able to recognize emotions that need to be acknowledged and engaged; for some, intimacy is as uncomfortable as anger, yet both have information if recognized. During difficult or tense conversations, the capacity to share empathy and compassion while at the same time communicating clearly is what distinguishes the agile and adaptive from the competent but uninspiring.
In moments of disruption or uncertainty, permitting yourself to listen to your intuition can lead to unexpected insights that linear information gathering could never predict.
Finally, the capacity to scan the horizon can help you see an emerging opportunity or a threat that needs to be managed.
Our Presence Impacts Others
Above all, presence is relational. We need to be aware of what our presence is evoking in others. If people respond to us poorly, we can learn to use ourselves as instruments to determine if we are somehow triggering that response.
Over time, as a person from a French Canadian culture, I came to understand that my presence sometimes caused strong emotional reactions in others. My task was to learn how to reduce the emotional energy so that I could work with others while respecting that the differences that remained were not to be overcome or dismissed but rather managed.
I like to remind people that many formal invitations to an important event used to say, “the presence of your company is requested.”
The implicit expectation was that you would arrive at the event dressed appropriately and, most important, be on your best behavior. The implicit suggestion of the invitation was to invite you to both witness and participate, whether for a wedding, a funeral, or an awards presentation. If what was needed was to embrace and hold emotions of grief or joy, you could and would do that. If what was wanted was to help fill the dancefloor, or say a word or two, or applaud, that’s how you would respond.
Whether you are a leader or a coach, a parent or a teacher, remember that you are the instrument of change, and that your presence holds the data of the moment.
If you use your presence well, others will resonate with you. A person who is fully present offers a beacon of light—of creativity, compassion, insight, and resilience—that inspires others.
Presence cannot be scripted but when experienced by others, evokes trust and inspiration. In a world of change, our presence can serve ourselves and others.
Dorothy Siminovitch, PhD, is a world-renowned ICF Master Credential Coach who specializes in personal, executive, and team coaching. Her focus is on cultivating the power of presence and supporting people by using oneself as an instrument. With a PhD in organizational behavior, Dorothy is able to translate complex theories into working wisdom where she creates a safe environment for clients to consider new options or retire outdated habits.