Presence and the intentional use of self as instrument of change

Copyright © Peter Bluckert 2016. All right reserved.

We inevitably bring our presence into every context of our lives and this is something every manager and leader needs to be aware of in order to deepen our understanding of our impact and influence.

The important questions are about how well we understand our presence and what it evokes in others, to what degree our presence is grounded and integrated, and whether we can bring intentionality to it.

Is presence charisma, image, or style?

As you read this you may be struggling with the very concept of presence and be associating it with charisma, image or style which can be aspects of presence but only go part of the way towards defining it.

Our presence emanates from our way of being and acting in the world and gives rise to the notion of presence as ‘bringing who you are to what you do’.

The source of our capacity to influence

Our presence contributes to whether we attract and interest others; it also can be a factor in distancing or putting them off.

It is the source of our capacity to influence and equally it can explain our lack of impact. We may, for example, not be fully taking our place and space in a room, perhaps coming through too timidly. This may be due to shutting aspects of ourselves away out of a belief that they don’t belong in that arena.

The result can be a loss of power and authority and we may look back with disappointment and regret that we didn’t establish our presence sufficiently to have stronger impact.

Siminovitch and Van Eron (2006) unpack the notion of presence in the following way:

Life experiences; an intellectual and emotional repertoire; particular skills or strengths as well as weaknesses or vulnerabilities; values and beliefs; and physical presence itself.

“The individual who has yet to learn how to use different aspects of self – soft and hard, loud and quiet, strong and mild – is not yet a finely-tuned instrument of change.”

Presented in this way it is clear that we all inevitably have our own particular presence whether we are seen as charismatic or not. The question is more about how much we know about our presence and how to use it with skill and intention.

The critical importance of self-development

As I have argued in my book, Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching, Bluckert (2006), this points the leader to the critical importance of self-development in the journey towards personal excellence.

The manager or leader with little awareness of their presence and its impact is operating partially blind.

The individual who has yet to learn how to use different aspects of self – soft and hard, loud and quiet, strong and mild – is not yet a finely-tuned instrument of change.

An active process

The work we do on ourselves is therefore critical and one of the best ways a person can get a deeper appreciation of his or her presence is through an active process of seeking feedback from the widest range of sources – colleagues, clients/customers, trainers, workshop participants and other fellow travellers.

As we begin to get more of a handle on our presence we can develop greater assurance and flexibility in the way we choose to be and how we act

A more evocative presence

Sometimes we will judge that a more evocative presence is required – a softer, quieter, gentler presence with the intention of building trust and providing the support and safety necessary for risk– taking, self disclosure and the expression of emotion.

In this situation we may also feel that to psychologically size-down is appropriate in order to minimise issues of power and authority.

A more provocative presence

On other occasions it may be something altogether different. To get a fire started we sometimes need to give it some more air. To adopt the metaphor of self as instrument, we may need to bring bellows to the situation.

A more provocative presence may be what’s needed. In this case we may take a more challenging position, choose our words differently, express them more forcibly and intentionally stir things up.

To achieve this outcome we may choose to psychologically size-up during the interaction to emphasise power and authority.

Bringing a different presence to different contexts

This implies that we can and need to bring different presence to different contexts and adopt a more considered, deliberate and intentional approach.

At times we may even alter our energetic presence in order to mirror the different energy state of those we are with or to stimulate a different energy in the situation.

We may believe on occasions that a calming presence is required: on others, one that injects pace and urgency and may produce a level of discomfort.

Crucially, these considerations will be mediated through our internal compass of what for us represents ‘True North’ – in other words, the guiding principles, beliefs and values that underpin our way of being in the world and our notions of integrity.

Recognise what’s needed

The more highly evolved and integrated leader is someone who can more often than not recognise what’s needed, as well as what’s ‘right’, and makes good judgement calls about the nature of the presence that is appropriate and useful in any given situation.

She is then able to find it from within herself and express it skilfully. That means being able to access, and then covey, a range of styles of relating, and both an intellectual and emotional repertoire.

“Is what we say heard, is it taken seriously, does it resonate for others, and does it land?”

The intellect repertoire is around whether we can get to the core of issues and problems, see links and connections in complex events, combine the strategic as well as the operational and ultimately, how effectively we articulate and communicate our perspectives in a way that carries influence and impact.

Is what we say heard, is it taken seriously, does it resonate for others, and does it land?

The emotional repertoire, and this may help to explain the recent interest in the subject of Emotional Intelligence, is about the extent to which we understand our emotional world, how it’s affecting the clarity of our thinking, decision-making and our connection with others.

  • We need to know about these things if we wish to be more self-aware in our relationship to others.
  • We may want to convey a positive, confident attitude in our dealings with those around us but struggle to achieve this if we are feeling aggrieved, not valued or outright dismissed when we express our opinions.
  • We may know that we should try to find understanding and compassion for someone but fail to do so because we are over-tired and stressed or simply feeling bad about ourselves.
  • We may recognise that someone, or even the whole team, needs listening to with deeper care and attention yet not be able to find that resource from within our self because we are not getting that quality of listening from anyone in our own lives.
  • We’ve let our battery drain too low.

The importance of a leader’s emotional resonance

What the research into Emotional Intelligence tells us is that emotions are contagious and there is a growing recognition of the importance of a leader’s emotional resonance with and impact on others. Note here that both positive and negative emotions are contagious.

If we want to be a resonant leader who can bring a presence that is required in the situation then we will want to be as intentional about our emotional interactions as we are about what we bring to the thinking process, decision making and problem-solving that occupies such a great deal of attention of leaders.

Indeed, the very nature of those thinking arenas needs to be informed by our emotional intelligence. When this is the case, there is likely to be two outcomes.

  • The first is that the decision or action, and sometimes it will be not to act, is sounder and more defensible.
  • Secondly, it’s likely that others will better receive it.

“To summarise: presence is not something that just a few people have and most people don’t have.”

A final point about presence

Sometimes when we are considering what might be the most useful presence to bring to a situation, we can benefit from asking ourselves the following question –

What is the presence that is lacking or absent in this situation?

We may then choose to bring that presence as an intentional way of influencing or changing things.

A classic example of this is where a team is so completely focused on task issues that they are tolerating a poor level of group process and interaction – individuals in the team are not listening to each other, there are constant interruptions and little constructive building on anyone’s contributions.

In this scenario it’s likely that some people, maybe most, will be switched off and the potential of the team is not being fully harnessed.

One option is to simply name what’s happening and see whether this makes a difference.

Another is to provide some of what is missing by injecting process-oriented comments and modelling certain behaviours such as listening well, with the intention of raising people’s awareness and interest of the ‘how’ not simply the ‘what’.

The golden rule here is to do this without conveying a critical, judgemental stance that would likely produce resistance rather than generate curiosity.

Do you need to bring in a consultant?

It’s still the case that many organisational teams feel the need to bring in a consultant – external or internal – to provide this facilitation function during a specially arranged Away-Day or similar event.

I would suggest that we should now be looking beyond this model to help managers, leaders and team-members develop these observational and process skills themselves, as part of their all-round modern leadership skill-set.

This will enable them to bring a process-oriented presence to compliment the typical task-focused mindset so common in most organisational settings.

To summarise

  • Presence is not something that just a few people have and most people don’t have.
  • Whether we understand our presence or not, and whether we appreciate its impact on others, or not, we have our own presence that we carry into all parts of our life.
  • Our challenge is to gain a deeper understanding of our patterns of relating – do we habitually move towards people, move away or move against. Can we collaborate or are we happier doing it our own way? Are we transactional or relational in our interactions? Can we tune to a number of wavelengths or are we stuck in a fairly narrow bandwidth.
  • These and other considerations discussed here such as our intellectual and emotional repertoires will determine the flexibility we bring and ultimately the intentionality we bring to our efforts to influence people and effect change.

Further reading:

Courage & Spark



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