Shaping Our Presence to Be More Supportive
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
In these days of heightened anxiety and insecurity, many of us are drawn to be a safe and reassuring space for those who are in crisis and afraid. And, when we’re in that often unavoidable place ourselves, we’re grateful to the folks who can hold that kind of space for us.
What is it about the people by whom we feel most comforted? What is awake in us—consciously or otherwise—when we are feeling truly available to emotionally support others? Sometimes it’s someone saying just the right thing. Often, that right thing is saying nothing at all. As most practitioners of mindfulness know, something is going on around, between, and beneath the words.
What is happening with our bodies on both overt and subtle levels—posture, breathing, gaze, movement/stillness, etc.—has as much to do with how we’re communicating as the words themselves. When our physical state and our words are misaligned, the message may not come across as powerfully—or at all. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being yelled at to stay calm, or someone is speaking about something they really want while sitting in a reclined pose. Those are some extreme examples of what we’re pointing toward here.
One of the philosophical underpinnings of Integral Coaching is a focus on somatics, or the body. Part of training to be an Integral Coach is to take up a practice or practices that “build the body of a coach:” developing our physicality in a way that helps us be fully present with others, listen receptively, communicate clearly, and attune closely. This is different for everyone, naturally.
Getting in literal shape: circle, square, triangle
In the Professional Coaching Course, we study the work of Wendy Palmer, a renowned Aikido instructor and author of the books The Intuitive Body and Leadership Embodiment. One of the concepts central to Palmer’s work is our ability to shape our energetic field into a circle, square, or triangle—and the effect that can have on our interactions.
It’s not too difficult to see the moods these different shapes evoke: circles are soft, receptive, and inclusive; squares are grounded, solid, and stable; triangles are forward-focused, intentional, and precise. We all have the shapes we habitually occupy—and it is possible to cultivate the others so that they are available to us when the situation calls for them.
In the world as it is (or, was!), success is associated with being triangular: tunnel-vision focus, sharp, alert, detail oriented, so many of us have taken on this shape. Without awareness, we may bring triangular energy to everything, even when we’re trying to listen or be compassionate—times when a circle or square shape might be more useful. Others of us are naturally more laid-back and receptive and could benefit from being more focused and assertive in our interactions—particularly in times of crisis.
So how to cultivate the qualities we need? One very basic and accessible way is to (1) bring to mind the characteristics each of these shapes evoke, and then (2) find something in the physical world that can show us how to make that shape with our own bodies. Here are some ideas.
Two qualities of a circular shape are open-heartedness and welcome.
You can physically orient to the shape of a circle or sphere using a prop, like a yoga ball. Bending backward over the ball is one way to physically open the heart space. You can do this for a few minutes each day, holding the position and reflecting inward, noticing with compassion how your heart is receiving the world in all its beauty and pain. It may feel vulnerable or scary. Be gentle with yourself—explore your edge but don’t force yourself to stay longer than you can tolerate.
Wrapping our arms around the ball, as though in an embrace, is another way to orient our bodies into a holding, welcoming shape. Trees work for this too. Especially right now, when opportunities to do this with a human being are rare—or if we’re not yet accustomed to or comfortable with this kind of interaction—the props can be helpful.
A square presence is one that is calm, stable, and reliable.
As Palmer points out in The Intuitive Body, we all live in squares. Nearly all of our homes and buildings are rectangular. Perhaps you can sit in the middle of a room and orient to the shape of it. Align the spine beneath your skin to the beams behind the drywall. Notice the not-going-anywhere stability of where the walls join the floor, ceiling, and each other. Feel the room holding you. Let yourself dissolve into it, knowing that you are in an immovable structure of support.
You can do the same thing standing outside a building. Noticing (and bringing into yourself) its strong foundation, the solidity of the structure, and its quiet stillness.
Triangles are decisive, clear, and forward-moving.
The three warrior poses in yoga are triangles. You might take up a practice of making yourself into a triangle by holding each pose for a few moments, increasing the time as your capacity builds. (If you are a beginner to yoga, Judith Lasater’s 30 Essential Yoga Poses can get you started.)
You can also spend a few minutes each day visualizing yourself as the prow of a ship slicing through water or ice. When engaged with mindfulness, sword-based martial arts, archery, or even throwing darts are all practices that can help us hone this quality.
The beauty of playing with shapes is that it is a very simple and low-stakes exercise—and can be profoundly effective. You don’t have to know how to make a perfect circle with your energy before entering into a conversation with someone. You can simply go in with an intention to be more circular, square, or triangular in the interaction. Hold the shape lightly with your attention and stay connected to the person you are supporting. See what happens.
Which of these shapes might you need to cultivate to become a more attuned presence for others? What other ideas do you have for doing so?
We start to look at these concepts in Foundations of Coaching, an introduction to the Integral Coaching methodology.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.