Presence and positivity
We’re exhorted in many areas of our lives to think positive, to behave positive. And in my experience, positivity of thinking, behaviour, communication, leadership, and the way we relate to each other as human beings brings benefits. It can inspire confidence and hope in ourselves and others, it can affirm us and others, it motivates and encourages discretionary effort, it can reduce stress and build resilience, it can nourish relationships, it can entirely change perspectives, and it can set the tone for a culture in an organisation or a team.
Positivity alone isn’t enough
And yet….. it seems to me that positivity alone isn’t enough – and certainly positivity without a foundation of reality and connection with one’s audience isn’t useful at all, and can indeed be damaging (remember Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cheery promise in the autumn of 2020 that COVID would be all over by Christmas?). If, in a professional coaching context, I share a dilemma or a problem with another person, and I’m at the beginning of my process to try and manage it, manage my emotions around it, and work through it, I actually feel unacknowledged, unheard and let down if their response is simply to invite me to look on the bright side, to look for the pluses, or to look for the solution – or even to give me what they think is the solution. And any positivity I might experience is short-lived and insubstantial.
What’s needed is presence
More in line with what I need at that stage of my relationship with my problem or dilemma is presence – the other person’s capacity to be with and to tolerate me and my difficulty, to acknowledge my distress, my confusion, my not knowing. To be openly and receptively aware, to be accepting and curious without wanting to apply a quick sticking plaster.
What is presence?
Psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dan Siegel sees presence as ‘the quality of our availability to receive whatever the other brings to us, to sense our own participation in the interaction, and to be aware of our own awareness. We are open to bear witness, to connect, to attune to our students’ internal states’. I need to be seen, and then I can feel a connection. Without that connection the other person’s positivity is too superficial to make any kind of difference for me – and at worst can actually betray my trust.
I also need the other person to be attuned with me – to be paying attention to my inner experience. Dan Siegel says of attunement: ‘When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” ‘.
When we ‘feel felt’ our world changes: we are in connection with the other, and importantly, we come into better connection with ourselves, we feel safer, and so we can shift our emotional state to a state characterised by greater ease, and we can engage with our rational minds more effectively. Which means we can then choose to engage with, and move into, a state of greater positivity and energy – positivity and energy which are more firmly founded than simple cheerfulness can be, and which are therefore more sustainable.
Presence can enable positivity
Without this feeling felt and this connection, there’s a risk that we can experience the other’s encouragement to be positive as an instruction, or even a demand, without care or caring. But once we are in connection because the other person is present to us, positivity has a whole different character – more stable, more firmly rooted, and more real.
 ‘Reflections on The Mindful Brain: A Brief Overview’, Adapted from The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York: WW Norton 2007), Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.