Presence– being fully engaged with someone– is one of the greatest gifts we can give, and it is also highly effective for building trust, developing clarity and motivating growth.

Yet presence is a slippery term– how do we know when we are being present? What are some specific things we can say or do to be present with our team members and colleagues?

Looking to the canon of humanistic psychology, I found that Carl Rogers stands out on the topic of ‘presence.’ Rogers made it his life’s work to outline the characteristics of a ‘helping relationship,’ because he believed that human beings can best evolve their potential in relationship– or what we might today call a mentoring or coaching relationship.

It’s fascinating to hear the echoes of Rogers’ beliefs in current definitions of leadership. Hay Group defines a visionary leader as one who “through empathy and clarity [is] able to move people toward shared dreams.”

Still, how do we actually do this empathy and presence thing? What does it actually look like when a team member stops me in the hall wanting my presence as I’m rushing to a meeting?

I searched more to find that one of Carl Rogers’ doctoral students, Marshall Rosenberg, made it his life’s work to develop a communication model that supports presence. He came up with types of responses that block presence or empathy in the moment.

So if someone comes to your office with a concern, here are five things you can say to block presence:

  1. “This is what you should do …” – Advising
  2. “Here’s what I think …” – Advising
  3. “That’s not so bad, look at the bright side.” – Consoling
  4. “Be grateful for what you have.” – Educating
  5. “Someone else was in this situation and they knew how to handle it.” – One-upping

While these types of statements have their appropriate applications, they pull the recipient away from their own experience and focus their attention on someone else’s thoughts or interpretations about their situation and what they should do about it.

In contrast, as leaders, we can ignite change in our people by inviting them to pause in the moment and connect with their own experience. The following five questions enable the recipient to pause and gain their own clarity:

  1. “How do you feel about it?”
  2. “What concerns does this bring up for you?”
  3. “What outcome do you most want?”
  4. “What’s most challenging for you about this?”
  5. “Is this important to you because you really value ___?”

This type of pausing to support someone in self-connection might seem very different from our accustomed leadership actions like providing firm direction, swiftly making decisions, and pushing people to their best through clearly set standards.

But what if it’s not just our company or project goals we are trying to evolve? What if we are trying to support our people in evolving themselves to their highest potential?

The great irony that Rogers pointed out is that when it comes to helping to evolve people, being present without trying to change the person or the situation is what most swiftly leads to change.

So if part of leadership is about helping our team members evolve into their full potential, and we wish to facilitate change, then maybe presence does have a place in the leadership toolkit.


Image Credit: ©


Nicole Pallai

Nicole Pallai

As a leadership development coach and consultant, Nicole partners with high performing professionals to optimize their energy management, stress resilience and productivity so they can sustain a high impact career over the long term while living life to the fullest. Her coaching framework integrates proven techniques from sports/performance psychology, positive psychology and neuroscience to form a cutting edge and highly individualized approach to optimal performance, energy and stress management, well-being and work-life balance. It’s her passion to answer the challenge of the loss of talent and human potential due to increasing rates of workplace burnout and chronic stress. She believes that with the right skills, awareness and support, every person can live their full potential, regardless of the challenges they face.

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