Showing up: Courage, Presence, and Power in Coaching Relationships

Eric Kaufmann's picture Submitted by Eric Kaufmann April 6, 2018 - 3:47pm
Showing up: Courage, Presence, and Power in Coaching Relationships

Last Friday, on the evening of our 19th wedding anniversary, I shared with my wife how much I love her. I shared how I appreciate her, the depth and intensity of my emotional connection, and the tremendous gratitude I feel. Sure, I had a couple glasses of great Pinot in me, but the truth wasn’t a chemical gushing, it was real. I showed up for my wife. I expressed my sincere feelings, communicated vulnerably, and was open and passionate. A few hours later on Saturday morning I struggled to stay in that open place and show my deep affection; I was a bit on edge and guarded. I experienced a “vulnerability hangover”—waves of anxiety from being exposed and defenseless.

When you show up, you lower your defenses, radiate your uniqueness and brilliance, and meaningfully connect with others. To show up as a leader, lover, coach, or in any situation, is concurrently empowering and vulnerable. If we choose not to show up, we’re doing so from fear.    

The first idea to grasp about fear is that it’s inevitable. Fear is the basic mood of the ego. We can’t help but reflexively tend toward being defended. It’s what we’re born to do. Our biological, social, evolutionary, and cognitive orientation is toward self-definition, toward forming a self-contained identity, an ego; and the boundaries of ego that serve to define us also separate and protect us from other people, experiences, and ideas.

The next idea to grasp is that fearlessness isn’t an option. We simply cannot be normal functioning humans and be fearless. When someone offers you a path to being fearless, hold on to your wallet and run. But just as we’re born into fear, we are also born into courage. Our ego, and it’s 31 flavors of fear, isn’t a fixed boundary because we grow with time, experience, and learning. Coaching is fundamentally focused on changing mindset and behavior. Our coaching profession is grounded in the notion of growth not fixity.

And so we come to the third idea, courage is uncomfortable. Normal people experience fear and anxiety when they leave their comfort zone and enter the growth zone. In fact, discomfort is the physical manifestation of courage—churning gut, racing heart, flushing and sweating, fatigue, and tension. Heck, if courage was pleasurable, we’d practice it way more frequently than we do. And practice we must because courage, like every human competence, improves with practice and feedback.

The courage at hand here isn’t about skydiving or eating fried scorpions. No, the courage we’re discussing is showing up as a coach and modeling that for our clients. Courage means walking toward what you’d rather run away from. Forget about ridiculous bravado and dreams of fearlessness and remember to engage the undesirable and accept the unacceptable. I call the most sustainable practice I’ve crafted for showing up with courage: feel, face, and embrace.

Feel

The first step toward cultivating courage isn’t an intellectual one. It’s your mind, after all, that is spewing forth anxiety. An effort to rationalize your way out, to logically understand and quell your anxiety and fear, is unsustainable. We can’t just think our way to courage because our fight-or-flight reactions, to the perception of danger, are initiated by the brain. Your thoughts and perceptions, when colored in shades of fear, initiate a physical response.

Step one is collecting and exploring sensory data: physiological, muscular, and chemical. Before trying to talk your fear away, before you attempt to influence the fear, you have to develop a bit of objectivity and distance. Connecting and staying present with your fear means paying attention to it, noticing how it looks and feels in your body—clenched teeth, tight neck, butterflies in stomach, sweaty hands, etc. Remaining present and connected to your body and your sensations is already an act of courage and it affects your relationship with the experience. Just like a relationship with a person depends on differentiation and bonding, so does your relationship with fear.

Face

To face your fear is to add more intimacy and influence in your relationship to it. When you face and look at another person you get to know and understand them. Facing your fear enables you to move away from objective observation of real-time physical experience, and to label and name your thoughts. This reveals your fear's nature—its qualities and components. Naming can be as simple as descriptive words: angry, unfair, roadblock, idiot, mad, wasting time, frustrating, holding me back, team-breaker. It can evolve into observations of themes: “I’m anxious about getting these reports in on time; I’m afraid of looking like an idiot; my team will suffer because of his behavior; this is out of control; if I can’t accomplish my goals, then my career’s on hold.”

Eventually, facing turns to deductive understanding, and recognizing patterns of familiar storylines, in thoughts we believed as true for years and years – our believed thoughts. These believed thoughts work as the gear wheels that turn the motor of our anxiety: “I’m going to fall short; because my team won’t make it, they will think that I lack vision and control; if my reports are late and inadequate, they will bust me for being a phony; I was promoted by chance and this will only prove it.”

By facing and naming well-rehearsed and deeply ingrained believed thoughts, you loosen their iron grip on your thinking. As long as your believed thoughts remain hidden in your mind, they act as quiet provocateurs in the machinery of your decision making, and in the choice to play safe and not show up.

Embrace

To embrace means, “to touch, to hold, to enter into close personal connection with the object.” Recall being afraid or anxious and you’ll recall contracting into safety. Embracing, by contrast, means reaching out and expanding. Again, nothing here about destroying your fear, or eliminating that which triggers your anxiety. Fear is the gatekeeper to power. When we cower before our fear, we surrender our energy and power. Coaching is a path of insight and action, and a coach that faces and embraces their inner dragon of fear brings a moral authority when inviting their client into the same practice.

Practically, embracing has two parts: planning and acting. A plan can be detailed and nuanced, or it can be simple and quick. Plan on moving 5% or 10% toward your fear, just enough to challenge your historical patterns and proclivity.

The connection and intimacy I enjoy with my wife is neither a gift nor an accident, it’s the work of showing up and being courageous and present. As a coach you have endless opportunities to show up and cultivate courage. The practice of feeling, facing, and embracing allows you to activate a pause button that halts the momentum of outdated believed thoughts and fear-based reactivity. In the space between stimulus and response lies our humanity—our gift of creation and compassion. With practice, we discern the themes of our safety seeking ego and choose to show up, manifest our uniqueness and brilliance, form meaningful connections, and serve our client’s brilliance and passions at the same time.

 

Eric Kaufmann is an executive coach and President of Sagatica (www.sagatica.com) in San Diego, CA. He is the author of The Four Virtues of a Leader and the forthcoming A Blueprint for Conscious Leadership. If you’d like to deepen your capacity to show up, contact Eric at eric@sagatica.com.

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