In her now legendary Ted talk of 2012, Amy Cuddy explores the suggestion that your body language may shape who you are. While it has long been understood that our non-verbal communication, like posture and other forms of body language, affects the way people see us, Cuddy and her colleagues focused their work on exploring whether our non-verbals affect how we think and feel about ourselves. Our minds change our bodies, says Cuddy, but can our bodies change our minds? Her TED talk answers this question by showing that the physical assumption of high or low power poses significantly impact an individual’s sense of what is possible.
Basically, what you present is what you become. If you hold the posture of a powerful, confident person, you begin to assume the power and confidence that you associate with that type of person. The same is also true of the inverse: if you adopt a low power, low confidence pose, you automatically conduct yourself with less confidence and personal power. Cuddy eventually distills this effect into one word: presence. In this context, presence refers to the ability to physically access one’s latent confidence, authority, passion and enthusiasm, and Cuddy selected the word as the title of her 2015 book, Presence – Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.
Watching Cuddy’s TED talk for the first time I was struck by her zeal and sincerity – this topic clearly meant more to her than its academic interest. Towards the end of the talk we discover why: in the summer after her sophomore year in college Cuddy was involved in a major car accident which left her with a traumatic brain injury. She was told that she would never finish college, but through hard work and perseverance she not only finished college, she went on to complete her graduate studies at Princeton and land a job at Harvard Business School. Despite these accolades, Cuddy struggled to shake off a nagging voice in her head that said, ‘I don’t belong here.’ How she overcame that voice and arrive at her philosophy of ‘fake it till you become it’ is a moving personal story that draws the viewer closer to her.
Then, approximately 18:30 into the video, while sharing the account of a desperate student that approached her one day with the words ‘I don’t belong here’, Cuddy falters. She is overcome with emotion and needs to pause her presentation to regain her composure. In that moment we all feel what Amy Cuddy feels: the struggles, the fear, the hardship, the hard work, the pain and the triumph. We drop into a place of empathy and compassion that visibly impacts the live audience listening to her. We are connected to her and somehow to each other. In a talk about physical presence, Cuddy’s testimony and vulnerability give us an unscripted glimpse of a deeper, richer type of presence. Being able to access this kind of presence is what makes good coaches great.
Though the veracity of Cuddy’s scientific work has been criticized in recent years, it continues to point to an important aspect of deeper presence: the body. The Harvard teacher’s TED talk and subsequent book famously advocate the use of certain postures to achieve better behavioral outcomes, but there are, in my opinion, even greater rewards to be achieved through presence. And the body is a good place to start. The yogic traditions of the east have for centuries used the body as a gateway to specific states of mind. Mindfulness meditation – the art of training the mind – rests on the body as a primary tool, with foundational practices like Breathing Meditation and the Body Scan. Even the Navy SEALs use breathing practices to calm their nervous systems and bring themselves back into the present.
The key here is embodiment. Presence is not something you think about, it’s something you manifest. At its deepest and most authentic it can only happen when you are right here in this moment, not thinking about the past or future. In a coaching conversation this is critical. If your coach is planning your next steps while you are still busy talking or, even worse, trying to remember what’s for dinner, they are not fully present. And, because all coaches are human, all clients have experienced this before. Whether you’re aware of it or not, presence feels different. We can all sense when someone is not genuinely tuned into us – even if they are making all the right noises and gestures they are somehow not connected to us. Hopefully, however, you have also experienced what it is like when a coach is fully present. Everything changes. When a person listens to you with full attention you feel heard beyond just your words. You feel understood, safe and capable of great degrees of trust. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” In such conditions your potential for change and development soars. This capacity is called Coaching Presence and is one of the ICF’s Core Competencies, but coaches’ abilities in this competency naturally vary.
As a client, presence is one of the first things you should be looking for when choosing a coach. Use your free coaching intake session to get a feel for the coach’s level of ‘here-ness’. Is she listening to more than just your words? Is he showing up fully for the process or is his mind elsewhere? Do you think she has the potential to sit with you in difficult moments without flinching? Without a coach grounded in presence and authentic attention you may not achieve the results you deserve.