What Is ‘Presence’ and How Does It Aid in Communication and Conflict Management?

Image by Sergey Nivens.

11 resources for exploring elements and concepts of being there for it

Presence is both an understood and elusive concept. Think of the captivating stage presence of a master performer, the attentive presence of a good listener, the easy presence of a good conversationalist, the charismatic presence of many leaders. On the flip side, can’t we equally detect a quality of non-presence in someone distracted on the other end of a phone call, the agitated presence of a worried patient in a doctor’s waiting room, the fuming presence of a fellow transit rider? But what is presence exactly and how do we get it?

Elements and concepts of presence are an academic interest of mine as I work my way through a master’s degree in Communication one class at a time. This interest is both broad and philosophical (What all comprises presence? Are there ethical components of presence?) and specific to the interpersonal communication of one-on-one coaching and facilitating conflict resolution through mediation (What elements of presence increase positive outcomes in both situations? What skills are involved in presence?).

Though I still play with the categories, I think of presence in terms of these five different elements:

  • Presence in a role. How we “hold the space” for coaching or mediation to take place; how we maintain the role — including any ritualistic/theatrical requirements — of coach or mediator and the boundaries of the forms. It’s also about simply being present in the room and any placebo effect and logistical value that adds. [1]

  • Ways of being. The intangible qualities of how we are that contribute to communication and conflict management.

  • In-the-moment communication. The choices we make moment by moment by staying attentive, listening deeply, and keeping ourselves energetically focused.

  • Beliefs, values, mindsets, and intention. Underlying nonverbal elements that ultimately affect both how one is (being sense of presence) in coaching or mediation, and a coach's or mediator’s in-the-moment communication choices.

  • “Presencing.” Anything that maintains coaching or mediation as a field or system that continually replicates, replaces, and reinvents itself — both broadly as distinct disciplines and any specific coaching or mediation session. [2]

Below are the six books and five journal articles that most helped me initially to uncover characteristics of presence and ways of thinking about it in ways that are useful for thinking about positive outcomes in coaching and mediation.


Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution* Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman, eds. (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2003) This anthology most directly connects mediation and mediators to the suite of concepts around presence and in-the-moment communication that interest me. Its twelve essays examine the personal attributes and ways of being of the mediators themselves — who they are over what they do — and how such things contribute to effective conflict resolution. A few of the chapters directly use the word presence and discuss various elements and interpretations of it, but all directly bear on the broader concepts and characteristics relevant to communication. These include the theatrical/ritual elements and roles a mediator may adopt to be successful, words and language, emotional and energy intelligence and management, mindsets and belief systems, and more.

The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership* Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp (Chicago: Conscious Leadership Group, 2014) The basis of this book is conscious, “above the line” leadership. It identifies four ways of being from which we can lead, three that are above the line — by me, through me, as me — and one that’s below the lineto me. Above the line leadership is characterized as open, curious, committed to learning; below the line as closed, defensive, and committed to being right. Conscious leadership for the authors means taking responsibility for being aware of which mode one is in and shifting when below the line (things happen to me here; I am a victim; I blame others) to an above the line state.

While not a communication, coaching, or mediation book, I include this book because the through me state it defines and describes is relevant to interpersonal neurobiology (see Siegel below) and my interest in the communication techniques of coaching and mediation. Whereas by me leadership is when leaders create and make things happen and are aware of their personal power and as me leadership is a state of oneness with the universe, described as no questions, no seeking, no ego, no leading, no one to lead, through me leadership refers to a state of “surrender” and “collaboration,” which is less about the leader and more about how a leader interacts in the present moment with others and the world. The presence, collaboration, and other orientation of through me leadership directly relates to successful communication in mediation and coaching.

Presence: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation* Patsy Rodenburg (New York: Penguin Books, 2009) The theater world illuminates two aspects of presence that I think are useful for my interests in the nonverbal, being, and interpersonal dialogue components of coaching and mediation: (1) what’s known as stage presence and (2) fundamentals of improv comedy (such things as don’t deny what you’re given/respond to what the other person has actually put out there, look good by making your partner/s look good, and “yes, and…”). From my research to date, world renowned acting instructor/coach/thinker, Patsy Rodenburg, has the most insightful, sophisticated understanding of presence from her world — variations on both (1) and (2) — that is readily germane to other realms, so I dive into this book to find those applications and the overlaps for coaching and mediation.

Rodenburg’s ideas about presence center on her notion of three circles/types of energy inside every individual. The first circle is withdrawn, closed, self-oriented, and taking in energy from others; the third circle is blustering, aggressive, boundary-ignorant, and the expending of generalized energy; and the second circle — the energy of connecting, presence, charisma — is just right, the place where we’re most effective dealing with others, giving and taking energy in ways specific to the moment and situation.

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future* Peter Senge, Otto C. Charmer, Joseph Jaworksi, and Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2004) Peter Senge is a systems scientist/philosopher/management expert, most known for his work on learning organizations. In this book, he and his co-authors consider an idea of presence — that the whole of something is present in its components — and the work of dozens of innovative thinkers (e.g., Rupert Sheldrake, Buckminster Fuller, Joseph Campbell) to explore the nature of change, learning, and the “generative moment” (the present in which things happen/can happen).

As with the through me style of leadership (Dethmer, et al.) and the fundamentals of improv comedy (mentioned in Rodenburg annotation above), Senge and team examine, among many other things, the concept of surrendering to the moment as an element of effective presence and being with others.

Another of the themes of this book that is covered briefly in Siegel’s Aware is the field of possibility (Siegel branches a bit into quantum physics/quantum probabilities) that comes with the present and presence. I hope to one day further examine these ideas at the fringes to consider what implications there may be for the field of communication and the in-the-moment communication of coaches and mediators.

Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence* Daniel J. Siegel (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2018) While the first half of this book is more of a how-to guide for a particular type of mindfulness/meditation developed by Siegel (founder of interpersonal neurobiology, see below), all the book is heavily researched-based and the rest of the book covers the science and practice of different elements of presence. Relevant to my purposes are sections on attention; awareness and integrating information; consciousness/filters of consciousness and social intelligence/the relational mind; possibilities and probabilities at the moment; and the challenges, opportunities, and power of presence. These things influence the practice of mediation and being with others, the moment-by-moment facilitating the resolution/management of conflict, and a better understanding of them and their applications can only enhance a mediator’s work.

Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of Mind* Daniel J. Siegel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) Siegel is the founder of the interdisciplinary framework of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and this pocket guide is a compendium of all the important terms and concepts of this emerging field and how they interrelate. Also called relational neuroscience, IPNB explores the contributions of fields such as anthropology, biology, computer science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and systems theory to better understand human development and human experience and to find applications for healing, mental health, and well-being, particularly the relationship component of those things.

Along with neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change, rearrange, grow, and rewire itself over one’s life), the mind as embodied and relational is one of IPNB’s foundational insights. This latter understanding is what’s relevant for coaching and mediation — highly interpersonal, communication-dependent fields — as it shows that the brain’s actual mechanics and uses are shaped and re-shaped by its experiences in relationship. Siegel further proposes that we can consider the mind a relational process and that who we are exists as much between us as within us (as confined solely to our brain/body), which opens up many exciting questions for studies of interpersonal communication.


The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation Elizabeth E. Bader, Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution 17 (2015): 363–392 While the role of emotional intelligence in mediation is gaining greater attention in the field and its journals, this is the only article I’ve found so far that directly addresses neurobiology in mediation and how understanding neurobiology can help mediators be more effective considering such insights, bringing another level of emotional savvy to their work. It is the first link for me in connecting my interests in the communication/relationship techniques of mediation and interpersonal neurobiology.

Bader’s article gives a layperson’s overview of neurobiology considering her own work on the psychology of mediation and what she calls the IDR cycle (inflation, deflation, and realistic resolution) of mediation.

Mediating with Emotional Intelligence: When ‘IQ’ Just Isn’t Enough Harold Coleman Jr. and Matthew W. Argue, Dispute Resolution Journal 70, no. 3 (2015): 15–24 Coleman and Argue don’t actually address mediation in this article, but they are addressing the legal profession and its need for greater emotional intelligence (EI), which speaks to my interest in qualities of presence in lawyer vs. non-lawyer mediations. They define and describe characteristics of emotional intelligence; demonstrate EI’s increasing value to employers, foundation for critical workplace skills, and contributions to top performance; and opine that it’s time for law schools and the legal world to catch up with the rest of the business world and embrace emotional intelligence and cultivate EI skills and incorporate them into the practice of their profession.

Empathy, Neutrality and Emotional Intelligence: A Balancing Act for the Emotional Einstein James Duffy, Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal 10 (2010): 44–61 I find this article useful in two realities of the field of mediation: First, as the field has evolved, it has moved beyond techniques/skill-building and problem-solving to examine broader factors of ways of being, emotional intelligence, and empowerment and healing of the parties. Second, it appears accepted in the field that there is no one right or best approach to mediation or to be a mediator, and that each mediator navigates that for herself in the arena/s in which she mediates and perhaps even within any specific mediation itself.

Duffy’s article looks at the balancing act of properly addressing parties’ emotions and working within the fluctuating emotional environment of a mediation, and maintaining the impartiality of the mediator role. His coverage includes empathy and emotional contagion, empathy vs. sympathy, neutrality vs. impartiality, and these things as they appear in professional codes of conduct.

Given the unpredictable, broad, and sensitive nature of emotions and emotional awareness/navigation in a mediation setting and the wide berth allowed mediators in practicing their craft, the refinements Duffy makes to mediators’ calculations of these things especially insightful as I seek greater granularity in the understanding of uses of presence in mediation.

Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation Lois Gold, Mediation Quarterly 11 (1993): 55–66 While acknowledging that the goal of mediation is not to heal the parties involved, family mediator/therapist Lois Gold posits the value of a type of mediation or approach to mediation — “holistic” mediation — that fits in conflict resolution and would be of benefit to participants. She looks at three areas in-depth: mediation within a model of healing, communication techniques and orientations that promote healing, and mediator presence. Among her four elements of presence — centeredness, intention, ability to relate to/connect with the client, and congruence/authenticity — is a description of intention that adds something to the idea of presence that others don’t. Intention for her involves bringing a deliberate awareness and amplification of one’s guiding values and sense of purpose to a situation, thus enhancing one’s presence.

A Humanistic Approach to Mediation and Dialogue: An Evolving Transformative Practice Ted Lewis and Mark Umbreit, Conflict Resolution Quarterly 33, no. 1 (2015): 3–17 Transformative mediation is a social/communicative approach to mediation introduced by Bush and Folger’s The Promise of Mediation (1994) that recognized and stressed the importance of internal and relational transformation in conflict resolution. Humanistic mediation is in the transformative tradition but further de-emphasizes skills, techniques, and problem-solving in favor of the “humanizing capacities” of mediators and the parties at the table, deepening dialogue, and mediator presence.

This paper compares area of mediation in the problem-solving and humanistic approaches for demonstration and outlines some core ideas of a humanistic approach, as well as humanistic potentialities to the communication process of nine different areas of mediation (pre-mediation prep, face-to-face seating, power of silence, etc.). Three of these areas relate to mediator presence: mediator centeredness/decluttering of the mind, building rapport with the parties, and “deep listening from the heart.”

[1] Peter S. Adler, “Unintentional Excellence: An Exploration of Mastery and Incompetence,” chap. 3 in Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 75. Adler remembers an analysis of thirty successful cases he was once involved in. While mediators dissected and evaluated those events according to the norms of the profession, participants remembered the mediators as the people who opened the room, made the coffee, and introduced everyone.

[2] I borrow this coinage and systems-theory usage of presencing from Senge, et al. (Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2004).

*affiliate link