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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.

Second photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash

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  • This is really inspiring. It makes me think of Winnie the Pooh: "I always get to where I'm going by walking away from where I have been." There is no beginning, middle, end - just where we are going now, one step at a time.

    • Thanks for the quote from Winnie the Pooh, Eliza!

      Where does Pooh bear get all that wisdom?! That's exactly it! At this moment...until the next. 🙂

  • Tolstoy was a Taoist! Who knew? Just like Pooh...

    Thanks, Jason. Although this is not a new message, it's nevertheless always timely to be reminded to bring ourselves back to what is present before us. It's always timely, because now is the only time. 😉

    • So true about the here and now. I was reminded of the present and felt the urge to share this story with our community members.

      Wait...Tolstoy was a Taoist? I'm not well-read enough on Tolstoy I guess. 😛 Thanks for sharing!

    • Uh-oh...too late! Thanks for the warning anyway. 🙂

      I've heard about writers like Pasternak, and started on Tolstoy's W&P (never finished it). I'm a total newbie with Russian literature, and didn't even know Tolstoy wrote short stories. I would have had a better impression of him in high school had I known.

      Fyodor Dostoevsky! I just put in a request at my library for Brothers Karamazov. I expect to be a changed man after reading it. 🙂

      • I was afraid you'd mention Dostoevsky.... but if you can survive him, you can survive anything 😉

        I prefer Turgenev or Chekov to anything Tolstoy or Dostoevsky did, even tho Tolstoy's short stories are much better than W&P. (that was a torture in middle school).

        If you like poetry , you can't miss Pushkin.

        • Thanks for the encouragement Denis! Yes, W&P continues to be a 'struggle' to this day! 😛

          Thanks also for the recommendations!

  • Jason, thank you for this article! Once I got a great advice from a Coach at SAP and how he prepares for a client and this is how I try todo it since then.

    Before a session I get my self set up with what I need e.g. get myself hydrated, my book, etc. I start walking towards the meeting room about 15 min prior my coaching starts and I go step by step, breathing in, breathing out and starting to think of my client in the best way. Like "How far did she/he come"? "What is her/his values?" "What do I really enjoy about coaching this person?"AND I visualize them in their " magnificent self". In these 15 min of preparing I am totally in the moment -step by step- and preparing a space where my client can join - in the moment. And there are time when I am in a rush… but even then I am going to create this little ritual.

    You can imagine that the client is most of the time not in that space 🙂 But as I have prepared myself in a good way I can be the best listener, holding a space, give them also time to arrive and just listen, breath, and wait what comes up by being present.

    I feel this is a great gift to be really present with the person in front of you, in that Moment.

    Thanks again, Jason for sharing this "gem" with us.


    This works the same in a virtual setting of course!

    • Hi Carolin! Thank you for sharing the considerations and actions you take to be present for your clients!

      It is insightful to know how mindful you are of the environment you want to create for them. I also like the questions you ask yourself and visualization you do to set up the engagement. It's just as important to prepare ourselves as it is to organize our environment so we can be fully present for another.

    • Carolin, I really like your process for preparing for a meeting, putting yourself completely in a mindset of where the other(s) at the meeting are (coming from). I think this could work equally well when preparing for a meeting with a group as for an individual.

  • Its not just the coaching sessions, I think today being present is a rarity, I love this content and truly believe that its a great tip for 'life'. Important to the person we are with, of course they do notice. As a coach when you hear 'thank you for listening, or taking the time to listen to me', it feels great, even if its not about the coach. So many times as you look at the world around us, in a restaurant, two people on a bus, a lone person walking down the street, looking at a screen............

    • Thank you for your comment John! Yes, you are so right - being present is especially important and precious in our lives and personal relationships.

      I am regularly guilty of looking down at my phone in public. Intentionally making eye-contact with strangers is quite difficult these days. Let's all start by committing to be present with the most important people in our lives, and see what difference that makes to others!

  • Thanks for this thought provoking article!

    I always felt that we have enough wisdom in our head, its just that we forget to remember them and use them at the right moment!

    Also like the conversations in the comment segment. Big thanks again!

    • Thank you for your comment Chandramohan Sankaran, and adding your support to the topic!

      I agree that knowing what's right is one thing, and remembering to do it at the right time is quite another. Just like we've been conditioned to distract ourselves, we must reverse this behaviour for the sake of stronger relationships.