Education Hour: Leading with Presence

Our “Back to the Basics” series this year is “Speaking the Truth in Love.” During our Education Hours, we are focussing on building skill and capacity for having difficult conversations.

This first Education Hour delves into the skill of “Leading with Presence.” I heard of some difficulties people were having with the content of this Education Hour, and so I’m also including some further clarifications about that presentation below. If you have difficulties with any presentation or sermon, please let us know! We can’t learn and grow as a community unless the “shared pool of meaning” is enlarged by all of our feedback. 

Also… Throughout this series, we are mostly referring to situations where we are in conflict with people with whom we already have a relationship of some trust and safety — a spouse, a sister, a parent, a good friend, and (we hope) people within this community. In fact, one of the impetuses for doing this series is to build skill around “speaking the truth in love” within this community.  Though many of these “speaking the truth in love” principles and practices might also apply to conversations with people with whom we have less trust or safety or where there is a large difference in power, we are not primarily referring to these sorts of conversations within this series.

In last Sunday’s Education Hour, I defined “presence” as an “embodied awareness of our direct sensory, mental, and emotional experience.” When we are present, we are better able to stay in the room when conversations get heated and not spin off into “fight, flight or freeze” responses. (See the “Conflict Styles” blog post.) We are also able to be more aware of the wisdom of our senses, emotions and intellect, which gives us more information about ourselves and others and also gives us more choice about how we respond. The more present I am able to be when conflict arises, the better I am able to be authentic to my truth and also be open to the other person’s experience.

Having said what “leading with presence” is, here is what it is not:

Leading with presence does not mean we repress our anger or don’t get angry. In fact, in my experience, having an “embodied awareness of my direct sensory, mental and emotional experience” makes me more aware of my anger and more able to act on it. Like many Mennonite women (and men) in the community where I grew up, I was socialized to swallow anger to the extent that I often didn’t know I was angry.  (This is the “passivity/giving in” conflict style.)  As an example: During my early years of pastoring, someone got quite angry at me when I asked them to do something they found offensive. I apologized, and the person calmed down, but after going home, I got angry. I realized that this person was projecting bad experiences of other Mennonite pastors onto me in a way that was unfair to me (but understandable), and that by apologizing I had “absorbed” that projection and taken on more than way more than my share of responsibility. 

As I grew in my ability to stay present to myself during conflict, I became more aware of my anger, which I experience as a tightening and burning in my stomach. When I experience this, I know that it means my anger is coming up.  I also know (thank you, Language of Emotions!) that when anger arises, I need to ask “What must be protected?”  If I had that presence during the conversation I just mentioned, the answer to “what must be protected” would have been “me.” To protect myself, I might have raised my own tone a bit and said, “I can hear how angry you are, but it feels unfair to direct all this anger at me.” Or I might have said, “Is this anger really all about me?”  Or perhaps I would have pressed “pause” and said (without apologizing):  “I am going to think about what you said and get back to you with my response.” Then, I could have talked to the person when they were less angry and perhaps more able to hear my feedback. 

Leading with presence doesn’t mean we have to say things calmly or without emotion. In fact, during my reading for this series, I learned about something called “congruent communication” (thanks, Ling!). Often, especially in (white?) educated circles, we tend to emphasize rational discourse and devalue emotions. But, our emotions add a lot of information to our communication. It can actually be confusing to give someone feedback without also communicating — via words or tone — how we feel about that feedback. If you say to someone: “You ask probing questions” in a monotone, the listener might not know if you are saying “and it really makes me feel understood” or “and I feel violated by your intrusiveness.” Even if we are trying to not express them, our emotions often leak into our tone or other non-verbal signals, which may end up feeling incongruent and inauthentic to the other person. If we smile when we say we are angry or claim that we’re relaxed when our leg is pumping up and down, it makes the other person do the work of figuring out what we are really trying to say and what we really feel. 

Finally, the “practices for presence” that I taught are not the best or only ones. They are among the more common ones, but you may find them of limited usefulness. For instance, Ben Bolaños shared with me that sitting still and trying to sense something in his body isn’t helpful, but movement is. For him, that could mean leaving a conflictual conversation and going for a walk. If leaving a room isn’t an option, perhaps standing up and pacing is. As a white, neurotypical woman, I will not know what works for everyone! We are all different based on our race/ethnic backgrounds, gender, neurological wiring — not to mention our class and personality and all those other things that make us unique. I encourage us to share with each other what helps us come back to presence — to that “embodied awareness of our direct sensory, mental, and emotional experience” which, I believe, is a universal good.


This presentation is based on the online class “Mindful Communication” by Oren Jay Safer. He has a book coming out in December (highly recommended) called Say What You Mean that will cover much of this. 

One of the most important skills for having a good dialogue with someone when conflict arises is presence, which Oren defines as “an embodied awareness of our sensory, emotional and intellectual experience.” It’s similar to mindfulness.

Qualities of Presence

  • Natural / innate. It’s not something we need to create; it’s something we can return to. When not under stress, we are often naturally relaxed, alert and attuned to ourselves and environment. It’s good to notice what takes us out of presence, like a strong emotion or “going into our head” with too much thinking or analysis.
  • Embodied. The body doesn’t go into the past or the future like the mind. If you can feel some sensation in your body, to that degree, there is some presence happening.
  • Honesty: Presence is not about feeling good. It’s not all about calm and peace and openness. It means being honest. I can be angry and be present to that anger. If I’m not present to that anger, then the anger is going to be running the show one way or another.
  • Mutuality. The more present I am, the more I am aware of my body, feelings and thoughts, the more aware I become of you. Being present is not about cutting ourselves off from our surroundings or from the other person.
  • Vulnerability. To be fully present means we are connected to the truth of our experience, which is a little bit naked. We’re not putting up walls inside ourself, to protect ourselves from really knowing the truth of what is going on for us.
  • Uncertainty. We never really know what’s going to happen next. This is just part of being alive! It can be uncomfortable. But if we’re truly present, we’re in touch with that “tremble of not knowing.”  We can learn to not resist uncertainty as much and to accept it.

Benefits of Presence

  • Vitality, aliveness.
  • Choice — we can remember to use our tools in the moment.
  • Information — our awareness becomes sharper and more perceptive; we pick up on more, externally and internally.
  • Meter for reactivity. We can begin to sense when we are being reactive.
  • Provides a container to handle big energy.
  • Healing places of pain or wounding.

Practices of Presence

  • Feel the weight of your body. Feel the contact against chair or floor, the heaviness or pressure there. Keep bringing your awareness back to that contact or pressure. Find the experience of gravity in your own body. Can you sense this downward force? Let your awareness sink and settle down into your body.
  • Centerline/midline. Bring attention to spine. How your torso has this central axis from the bottom of your spine, up the middle of your torso to the neck and head. Notice how upper body is symmetrical from right to left. One way of sensing the centerline/midline is to rotate your shoulders a few degrees from left to right. Feel the axis around which the torso is rotating. When we’ve developed a connection with this part of our body, it can provide a lot of strength and stability in conversation.
  • Breathing. See if you can begin to tune into the sensations of your body breathing in and breathing out. You don’t need to breathe in any special way. You might feel your chest expanding and contracting; you might feel your belly rising and falling; you might even feel the air passing through your nose and throat, down into your lungs.
  • Touchpoints — areas of high sensation in our body. For example, can you feel your hands right now? Are there are any sensations there? Any warmth or coolness? Can you feel the contact with your hands resting on each other or against your legs? Can you feel your feet? Any warmth or coolness? Their contact with the floor? Now bring attention to your lips — to the sensation of them touching, to the tongue in your mouth. You can use any of these areas to ground attention in body as a way of returning to presence.
  • Orienting. This is something we naturally do in a new environment. Open yourself to the sounds and sights around you. Widen your awareness to include that. Orienting can ground our attention in the present moment, and widen the sense of space inside when our mind is racing or when we are flooded by emotions.
  • Pausing in conversation. My therapist calls this “pause for poise.” Pausing can help us slow our racing thoughts (or heartbeat) down; it can help us come back to presence; it can help us recollect what we want to get out of this conversation and our intention around it. (We’ll talk more about intention next Sunday.)
  • Pacing of speech. The more we practice with pausing, the more attuned we can get to the pace of our speech. When we modulate the pace of our speech, we automatically modulate the pace of our breathing, and when we modulate the pace of our breath, then we modulate our nervous system. Speaking slowly is not necessarily what this means! Sometimes, we can be very “attuned” to the other person if we speak fast. We are talking about paying attention to the pace we are using and expanding our flexibility, so we can choose the pace we are using. Often in conflict, our pace speeds up.
  • Paying attention to a choice point: speak or listen? The more we can pay attention to that moment of — am I going to say something or just listen and wait — the more we can cultivate a sense of presence in ourselves. That way, we’re not speaking unconsciously; we’re choosing to speak when we know better what we want to say.