A Way to Be - International Coaching Federation
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A Way to Be

Posted by Tina Mertel | January 5, 2018 | Comments (3)

A client or prospective client wants to be seen and heard, and to trust their inherent wisdom to bring them to their next action. A coach partners with a client in this process by using presence and communication—a way of being with their client while using coaching skills. ICF has created a powerful set of competencies providing pointers in what to do when coaching, but how does one cultivate the being that facilitates trust and intimacy, where a client senses the potential of their own power and creative muscles?

As a coach, the way you are being with a client creates a blank canvas upon which the client will paint and design their life. A way to “be” this blank canvas is to use a practice called Relational Presence, which was developed by Lee Glickstein, founder of Speaking Circles International, as a way to solve public speaking anxiety.  More than that, Relational Presence supports our practice as coaches in truly being with a client in a way that gets us out of the client’s story and in complete acceptance and support of the client.

The pleasurable practice of Relational Presence is an exploration that takes place in an intelligent field of kind regard and spacious listening. This methodology comprises two core behaviors that can be integrated into the coach’s being: using breath and eye gaze.

Take a Breath

A focus on breathing is core to many meditation practices to build a calm and concentrated mind. Yet how many times do individuals remember to take a few deep breaths as they communicate to another? Breathing practices are known to directly modulate the nervous system and calm the reptilian brain. Breathing also gives the client a chance to process information and allows them to create positive self-interest.

As Audrey Seymour, MCC, states, “The breath creates a pause so that instead of rushing to fill the space, both safety and inspiration have a chance to arise. With a breath the client has a moment to notice what wants to emerge from the quiet space.”

In his work with clients, Taka Kurata, ACC, uses breathing in “…feeling the full value of the silence of the breath. After I take a deep breath, it makes me feel comfortable and safe, which makes me open for the client. If I liken it to music, coaching is like a jazz session, not like an orchestra. It’s not a planned scenario; it’s more like a chemical reaction. Even though I have many years’ experience, I may have anxiety before a session, and a breath taken right in that moment tells me that I’m OK and I’m ready to accept the client.”

Breathing also helps the coach be with the range of emotions the client may express, from a fit of anger to deep sadness or simple peace. A breath by the coach also reminds the client to breathe, accept what has been said, and move from there.

Connect with Eye Gaze

The second behavior in being relationally present is eye gaze, a type of extended eye contact to another. In coaching, this can be done in person or by videoconference. There is research to suggest that eye gaze releases the social bonding hormone oxytocin, which often creates an increased sense of safety and trust. Other research, by Stephen Porges, Ph.D., suggests that extended non-threatening eye contact activates the Social Engagement System, which acts as a brake on the normal fight-or-flight response and slows the heart rate, thereby creating a sense of safety and connection. The use of eye gaze invites the client to realize the coach is in a state of fully accepting the client as they are.

Pam Noda, PCC, states, “My full body becomes an eye gaze, which is positive regard and receptivity to the client. All the client needs to do is look at me, and they can see that I am accepting them. Even if I’m on the phone, the practice of eye gaze has taught me to keep receptive to the client as if I was with them face to face.”

Eye gaze is not about trying to connect, but rather it’s allowing the natural connection between humans to reveal itself. Glickstein remarks, “We are stepping into rewiring our brains. My brain was wired at an early age to associate being seen with contraction and anxiety. But through this practice of being relationally present, I built new, very powerful neuropathways that associate being seen with pleasure and expansion.”

The combination of breathing and eye gaze core to Relational Presence make for a magnetic pull that clients can’t put a finger on, but they feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and being truly listened to. “Whether speaking with just one person, or an entire room, when you can make it a priority to be listening in this way, a big shift happens, and the pace of your speaking and your thinking naturally harmonizes with the listening—you are breathing, connecting and experiencing flow,” says Glickstein.

Tina Mertel headshot

Tina Mertel

Tina Mertel, M.A., PCC, has supported individuals in creating better relationships, whether with themselves or with others, for over 20 years. Her book, Meaningful Coaching, looks at how values impact and integrate with the ICF Core Competencies. She is a certified Speaking Circles® facilitator helping individuals use relational presence in being with others. Email her at info@meaningfulcoaching.com.

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Comments (3)

  1. This article explains why I love being in the Training & Development profession. I realized early on in life that being a therapist (my Mom was a psychiatric nurse) was not for me. I still wanted to help people, but in a more professional atmosphere… voilá Training & Development it is! This way I can help people to grow and learn what they need to in life as well as in their jobs. I like what she talks about here with the “eye gaze” and really listening to clients, so that they feel “heard”. Don’t we all want that? I know I do.

  2. Blake Austensen says:

    This is an excellent article that highlights 2 very simple techniques that can drastically improve a coaching conversation for any coach!

  3. Thank you for your insightful article, Tina, and for sharing the Relational Presence model. I agree in principle with the 2 ways of being – breathing and eye gaze to create safety for the client. In my coaching practice I have found that eye gaze, while comforting to some, can break connection for others. Having trained in trauma sensitive coaching and family & organizational constellations, I believe the reason for this to be unresolved shame or unresolved trauma. Because I am someone who prefers eye gaze as this does provide safety for me, I am sure to ask a new client how comfortable they are with gaze. Some tell me intermittent gaze creates a better connection and safety than a steady gaze. So I think it’s important not to consistently practice the dogma of eye gaze, because in principle it’s better, but rather to be aware of where it fits and where it may actually create less safety for specific clients.

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