When showing up isn't enough

August 1, 2007

I spent a couple of days last week with a group of highly creative and artistic people assisting them think at a strategic level about their sector. Like many people in the arts they are passionate, committed, enthusiastic and are not afraid of moving between their personal and professional selves in the service of the task. One of the things I noticed from the outset was how long it took some people to “arrive” both physically and psychologically. Some were late for our sessions and others were on time but not on message. I guessed that many mobile phones were on vibrate or silent and not many had been switched off entirely. (As it turned out, I was right).
This was a really experienced group of practitioners who were interested in the dilemma I reflected back to them about being in the room. I wondered what was going on that made it challenging for people to be really connected in the task. We worked through those challenges and emerged at the end of our work with a manifesto of responsibilities each was willing to sign up to in order to work productively in the future. They recognised that there was important information in not turning the phones off and being psychologically “outside the room”.
Physically “showing up” isn’t enough. The key question is – are you present? Being present requires a psychological and spiritual connection to the work that is happening in the moment and to the people with whom you are working. It requires intimacy and connection and it also means dealing with the fear of being connected. Being connected brings responsibilities and commitments and if we’ve left the phone on or are making ourselves available somewhere else it means our sense of commitment is also somewhere else. Agreements about tasks and decisions will then fail to deliver because that bullet pointed list may be a way of avoiding something deeper.
There was a time at the early stages in my consulting career when this kind of dilemma would have bothered me and I would have tried to “fix it”. These days I see it as a rich opportunity to introduce more of the shadow into the room – if people are willing to have their “resistance” seen then it’s a clue that the time may be right to have a look at what’s important about that resistance.. So it’s not only the participants who need to show up, it’s also the consultant or facilitator who needs to pay attention to what’s actually going on in front of them rather than what they think should be going on. In my own case, the less attention I pay to the detail of the discussion and the more I pay to the context and tone of the discussion the better I am able to work between the levels to create a space where everyone can be present. I can’t make them show up but I can wonder out loud about the quality of presence.