Coach’s Corner – Leo Tolstoy on Being Present
19th century Russian literature is a rare occurrence in my life these days, since I hardly find enough time to read. At a recent library-visit, I found this gem by Jon J. Muth, which is relevant to coaching as well as anybody who cares about building strong relationships. This led me to reading the original story by Leo Tolstoy (a pleasure to read as well). I like Jon Muth’s version more because it makes Tolstoy’s brilliant message easier to understand.
In Muth’s version of The Three Questions, a young boy Nikolai asks his animal friends these three questions:
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
When he wasn’t satisfied with their answers, (for example, “you will know when to do things if you watch and pay close attention“….) Nikolai decides to ask a very wise, old turtle named Leo (an obvious homage to the original storyteller ? ). Leo is busy digging in his garden and doesn’t respond to Nikolai when he asks his three questions. Being a helpful boy, Nikolai helps the old turtle dig the soil in his garden.
A storm started and they both heard a cry for help coming from the forest. Nikolai quickly rushed into the forest to find a panda bear who had fallen and injured her leg. He helps the panda back to Leo’s cottage to rest and recover. The panda cried out for her baby that was still in the forest, and Nikolai runs back to retrieve the baby panda who was shivering but uninjured.
The next morning when the sky clears, with the pandas returned safely back home, Nikolai asks the wise turtle again for the answers to his three questions. Leo replies that the answers have already presented themselves when the boy helped him dig his garden, and raced into the forest to help rescue the mother and baby pandas. Leo reminds Nikolai:
“Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”
When I read the passage above, I think about the importance of being present for the ones we are with. From this perspective, “presence” is a state of being available for others, where all of our intellectual and emotional skills are utilized to listen, observe, and empathize. We usually refer to this as “paying attention” and “being there for someone.”
When coaches are present with their clients, they are focused on the person and supporting the person at their side. However, being present does not need to be as serious as it sounds. Playfulness and levity are also important ways to show others we are enjoying each other’s company at that moment.
How to be more present?
There are common techniques and skills to help us become more present, including practicing mindfulness, actively listening, and removing distractions. I believe we need to complement these practices with a few other personal conditions to become truly present:
Personal check-in – Are you ready and available to be “in the moment” whether you are with one or multiple people? If not, what’s occupying you? Maybe you need to take care of this first.
Withhold judgement – Do you have any agendas, personal goals or preconceptions of those you’re with? How do these stand in the way of being open and available to support others? What can you do to clear yourself of these beliefs? At the same time, how might you be also judging yourself?
Attitude – Being present doesn’t mean you need to sit up straight, stare intently at the other person and nod incessantly to show them you’re listening. You can enjoy your coffee or tea, take in your environment and let your breath out. Being present is not just about the behaviour, but also the attitude behind the behaviour.
I’ve concluded that being more present with those we’re with allows us to increase our understanding and build stronger relationships with one another.
Do you share the same take-away as I do about being present when you read the passage above? If so, what advice can you share to help others be more present?
Check out more blog posts in this series: Coach’s Corner.