A Politics of Gentleness in the Practice of Coaching: The dynamics of enclosure and the possibilities of ordinary ethics.

Presented at EMCC Research Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, June 2013


Following a brief analysis of some of the literature on presence I conclude there is need for clarity, many positions moving seamlessly between, on the one hand, the valuing of presence in and of itself and, on the other, the valuing of a particular quality of presence. I turn to the notion of relational field and offer a brief outline of a theoretical system of relational analysis, including: the method of register analysis; the dynamics of registers of enclosure; and an overview of what I term “ordinary ethics” and a “politics of gentleness”. I conclude with brief reflections on the relevance of this theoretical work for coaching practice.


I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my 15-year academic journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. For me, coaching can be a gentle art, when practised ethically and sensitively. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

Back in the 1980s I remember that visiting a supermarket tended to be a fairly unthinking activity. We would take down cans of food, or what approximated to food, and place them rather carelessly in the shopping trolley, before carting them home and eventually consuming the mysteries within. These days we tend to be quite a bit more discriminating about what we buy. Checking the ingredients list on the side of a can or a packet has become almost automatic; we now seem to have developed a keen sense that what we eat has an effect on our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And we don’t stop there; we also check where our food has come from, in light of anything from airmiles to sweatshops to the policies of nations.

Sometimes when I think of theory I think about shopping in a supermarket. In mind of the spirit of Marx who commented that we make our own history but not quite as we please, when we think our thinks we do indeed think our own, but not quite as we please. We are born into conditions of thought not of our own making, and, for the most part, we tend to take our cans of ready-packaged thought down off the supermarket shelf with little regard to content or provenance or ethical import. Ready-made thought, ripe for consumption. We often give little thought to the ways that particular kinds of thinking can affect our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And they can.

What, then, do I mean by “theory”? I understand theory as thinking about your own and other people’s thinking, feeling and doing … to reduce possibilities of violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in everyday life … and to increase the possibilities of human flourishing and enhance our understanding of the art of being human.

Literature review

“Presence” is a term that is gaining caché in coaching, and one which I find useful to explore as a gateway to my reflections on gentleness. Interestingly, as a positive term it seems to be finding more fertile ground in reflective professional practice (for example, in coaching, the performing arts, management, and healthcare) than in the more abstracted realms of philosophical academic thought. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the emphasis in professional practice on literally ‘being present’ in the company of another or others. Professional practice, practised ethically, invites a pragmatist immediacy of grounding and response on account of the quality of work-calling-to-be-done in and through relationship.

Writing on presence and presencing seems to fall into two main camps, which might be characterised as optimistic and pessimistic respectively.

In the optimistic camp, writers present presence as an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now. For such writers, presence is both possible and desirable. It tends to be experienced in gradations; more presence, it is assumed, is better. Presence can also be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better. This is exemplified, for example, by the writings of Silsbee, Topp, or O’Neill within the field of coaching. Elizabeth Topp (2006) writes that “Presence” is “one’s quality of relating to the here and now or present-moment”. Silsbee likewise writes, “Presence is a state available to all of us at any moment. While acquired habits and tendencies greatly constrain our experience of presence, our access to it can be intentionally and systematically cultivated” (2008, p. 3).

The pessimistic camp provides a useful foil with which to temper the possibility of romanticism. In the pessimistic approach, those who consider presence desirable are doomed never to achieve it, as we can never fulfill the promise of an unmediated or non- representational existence. As Cormac Power writes, in discussing the work of Derrida, Fuchs, Blau and others in the context of theatre studies, “Perhaps the idea of presence – of whatever kind – is itself a kind of fiction, an example of theatre’s capacity to create the ‘powerful illusion’ of the ‘unmediated’” (2006, p. 128). A more developed version of this approach can be found within philosophical discourse on “metaphysics of presence”, as found within poststructuralism and deconstructionism, building on Heidegger’s critique of temporality within Western philosophy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. Derrida and others characterise and critique the “metaphysics of presence” as the foundationalist tendency to anchor truth, reality, and being in a privileged fixed point of presence, essence, or identity.

From the perspective of coaching practice, such critiques cannot be brushed off lightly. Indeed, even within the work of presence-based coach Doug Silsbee there is a hint of circumspection about the stability of access to presence, “Realization, and the state of presence, disappears as soon as we observe and name it” (2008, p. 53).

My own position lies somewhere between the two camps.

I am happy to optimistically think of presence as a way of talking about the proverbial water in the lives of the proverbial fish. Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?” For me, presence is the water. I take presence to be an available quality of existence and an existant quality of relationship. I don’t, however, consider presence desirable. It’s not that I think we are doomed never to experience or achieve presence, it’s just that I don’t see any point desiring that which you cannot avoid.

I find it helpful to step away from the notion of presence as being helpful in and of itself. For me, presence is a more or less descriptive term, referring simply to the qualities of hereness (‘being present’) and withness (‘being with’) that I assume are part and parcel of the experience of being human. Any claims made for presence beyond hereness and withness are, for me, not only beyond the scope of the concept but also distract us from the more political dimensions of relational life. If presence is always-already present, then it is not so

much a background of presence itself that interests me as a coach but rather the variable quality of the relational field, couched in presence, that is in play.

When people write optimistically and aspirationally about presence in and of itself, they seem to me to be more writing about a particular quality of being present, a particular quality of awareness, a particular quality of relationship, a particular quality of participation in relationship. Take this statement from psychotherapist James Bugental, for example,

“Presence is a name for a quality of being in a situation or relationship in which one intends at a deep level to participate as fully as she is able. Presence is expressed through mobilization of one’s sensitivity – both inner (to the subjective) and outer (to the situation and the other person(s) in it) – and through bringing into action one’s capacity for response” (1987, pp. 26-27).

Bugental is advocating not just being present, but a particular way of being present with someone, a particular attitude with a honed awareness and a deep quality of listening, listening both to one’s self and to one’s situation.

Similarly, executive coach Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of presence in the context of the coaching relationship as a particular kind of orientation. She writes that presence involves the development and sustenance of tolerance for “ambiguity, daunting challenges, the anxiety or disapproval of others, and your own personal sources of stress” (2007, p. 20). For O’Neill, the cultivation of presence is also the cultivation of courage and strength in the face of challenges. In the context of a framework developed with the aid of systems thinking, what she calls “signature presence” is the quality of being most yourself when your self is most needed, “moving through these moments in your own unique way, thus making the most of your own strengths, interests, and eccentricities” (ibid).

The Relational Field

It seems to me that something more than “presence” is needed to speak of the variabilities of affect, power, and movement at play within relationship. One way to think about different kinds of presence, or different qualities of being present, is to consider presence (hereness and withness) in the context of a relational field. Within coaching literature relating to presence we find the concept of relational or social interactional field in the work of both Doug Silsbee and Mary Beth O’Neill. O’Neill’s understanding of the term is the closest I have come to my own understanding of the term:

When any two or ten or one hundred people interact with one another over time, they create a social interactional field. It operates through the relationships of those involved, but it develops a character, shape, and set of rules transcending any of the individuals who contributed energy to its creation. … It has its own anchor points, resiliency, and breaking point, and it is most often invisible to the members within it. When anyone within the field moves, all members feel the effect, though differently, based on their positions. Other metaphors for the interactional field are the gravitational and magnetic fields. We are immersed within their invisible forces and we feel their influence, though most often that influence is unconciously experienced (2007, p. 49).

The relational or social interactional field, then, is a way to speak about the continuous play of influences in a particular situation, the dynamic poetics of difference and differentiation whereby the personal experience of hereness and withness combines with a dynamic and relational ‘nearness’ of attraction and aversions, movement and currents.

I am reminded here of the Irish-language phrase, “bheith in áit na garaíochta.” It roughly means, “to be in the place where you are close enough to help.” The word “garaíocht” is a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, and is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”. It communicates, then, that quality of hereness-withness-nearness and response-ability. For me, “garaíocht” is the epitome of the relational field.


The method that I use to make more specific sense of the relational field is “register analysis.” I draw the term “register” from sociolinguistics (e.g. Halliday, 1978; Butler, 1999). As Michael Halliday has written:

“The notion of register is at once very simple and very powerful. It refers to the fact that the language we speak or write varies according to the type of situation. This is itself is no more than stating the obvious. What the theory of register does is to attempt to uncover the general principles which govern this variation, so that we can begin to understand what situational factors determine what linguistic features. It is a fundamental property of all languages that they display variation according to use; but surprisingly little is yet known about the nature of the variation involved, largely because of the difficulty of identifying the controlling factors.” (1978, pp. 31-32).

The study of register, then, tends to allow for analysis of context and the structuring of expectation that occurs within any context. Through a study of linguistic variation, for example, it is possible to come to a more nuanced understanding of how some linguistic forms might be considered appropriate-to-context within a particular situation and others might not.

Register theory allows sociolinguists to compare particular qualities of language, and I find it provides a useful launching-off point for comparing particular qualities of relationship within the play of influences of a relational field. In using register theory to make better sense of our experience of structuring of expectation, and of our participation in structuring of expectation,

I find it helpful to take language away from the centre of the theoretical model of register. Instead of a language focus, I am interested in architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing. I want a theoretical model that will allow me to better understand how those architectures and dynamics vary from situation to situation. How and why will one coaching session with a client feel so completely different to another? What distinguishes the dynamics of a coaching session from a casual conversation with a friend? What are the general principles of appropriateness-to-context which govern variations in thinking, feeling, and doing from situation to situation?

There are certain assumptions that I bring to this work. These are drawn from the range of my disciplinary explorations (see McCann, 2003), and might be characterized as social interactionist in inclination:

  • our experience of uncertainty is both present and variable;
  • to assume that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience;
  • humans respond to their environment on the basis of associative, cumulative, adaptive, and structuring meanings that emerge for them as social individuals; these meanings are modified through individual negotiation within social interaction;
  • as our experience of meaning is reconfigured, so, too, is our discursive relationship to uncertainty, our experience of affect, and our experience of power.

The heart of the framework is the identification of three key variables in the relational field which I regard as the most important governing variables in the structuring of social interaction:

  1. Intensity of affect (ranging from more to less intense)
  2. Character of influencing (ranging from more to less directive)
  3. Discursive relationship to uncertainty (ranging from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty to
    the acceptance of uncertainty)

The important point in this work is that I have found these three variables to be direct correlates. For example, the more intense the affectual environment, the more appropriate directive influencing becomes, and the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is likely to dominate within the situation. Likewise, the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is used within a particular situation, the more likely it is that responses will be directive and the affectual environment will intensify.

I use a register-based framework, then, to identify and evaluate the governing dynamics of structuring of expectation and, hence, of culture change to assist me in making sense of the coach-coachee relationship and the challenges of coaching practice. Every day we move in, through, and out of different registers or environments of expectation. The differences in our experience of everyday life, the multiple transitions from one kind of situation to another, are so commonplace as to usually evade analysis. But it is precisely those differences that make us who we tend to be, and it is precisely their commonplace character that invites analysis. To reduce this to very simple terms, register analysis can be understood as a way to “listen to yourself, listen to your environment; listen to your client, listen to their environment.”

An important concept here is what I call “the adjacent probable”. I have developed this term from an insight in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self-organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of register analysis, I take the concept of the adjacent possible and move it towards a notion of “the adjacent probable”. What the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that already dominate in the situation we find ourselves in. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses, both tacit and explicit, in a particular relational field that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant register of that relational field.


One of the primary reasons for the development of this theoretical work has been to allow me to more readily identify and respond to architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that contribute to the possibilities of increased violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in relationship. Through more helpful identification of such architectures and dynamics we might come to a clearer understanding of the political possibilities for human flourishing.

Key here is the identification of what I call “registers of enclosure”, that is, relational fields in which the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ has become dominant. Registers of enclosure become highly toxic and deeply unpleasant environments of interaction, and they tend to be (among other features):

a)  expansionary – they spread
b)  accelerative and intensifying – they get worse
c)  Highly commodifying – involving dynamics of commodification
d)  dominated by discourses and practices of resource production and management
e)  dominated by chronic heightened intensity
f)  dominated by chronic heightened directivity

Within these characteristically chronically intense and chronically directive environments, the adjacent probable of the corresponding relational field becomes the discourses, practices, and dynamics of enclosure. What that means is that what people will tend to reach for as a response within an enclosing environment will tend to make that environment worse. Discourses, dispositions, and dynamics characteristic of enclosure become normalized as the way things are, and frequently, at least rhetorically, as the way things must be.

I would argue that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic disciplines, and of political and economic practice, can be characterised as registers of enclosure. Most of what people generally consider ‘powerful’ or ‘authoritative’ interaction takes place within enclosing environments, where the enactment of ordinary ethics and the nourishment of human flourishing becomes incredibly difficult. Further, deeply unhelpful, enclosing understandings of human nature, power, agency, learning, and change are what become most available to us within the dominant, institutionalised discourses and practices of social, political and economic practice. Much of what we reach for from the supermarket shelf of thought throughout our professional lives will tend to double us back into enclosing dynamics; often despite our best intentions, and sometimes because of them.

Ordinary Ethics: Towards a Politics of Gentleness

Registers of enclosure also tend to be characterised by a significant chilling effect. Not only do the architectures and dynamics of enclosure come to feel appropriate, but architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that might help the situation become less enclosing come to feel inappropriate – “the adjacent unlikely”.

In practical terms, this means that in registers of enclosure it becomes increasingly unlikely that people will turn to the generosity, hospitality, nurturing, caring, gentleness, compassion, kindness, or trust that tend to be characteristic of human flourishing. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that the entire range of what I call “ordinary ethics”, the social glue of human flourishing, will become “the adjacent unlikely” of environments of enclosure.

This where a “politics of gentleness” comes in. What I call a politics of gentleness is a political positioning on behalf of the crucial importance of ordinary ethics. Advocating a politics of gentleness is, for me, to advocate for the vital importance of building and maintaining the optimal conditions for sustainable human flourishing. These conditions will simply happen, I believe, if we allow space for them to happen, if we trust in the hereness-withness-nearness that is available to us.

How is it a politics? Very simply, it involves a re-imagination of the notion of power. Instead of power being understood as the ability to control others or the ability to manage resources, power is here understood as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Power, then, is ubiquitous, dynamic, and specific in its effects, with a very sizeable nod in the direction of Michel Foucault (1990). Agency, then, becomes the exercise of power, understood as response-ability. Agency is our ability to respond in every moment by virtue of our experience of presence combined with the relational field, our experience of hereness- withness-nearness. Garaíocht.

Where others have written optimistically about the possibilities of presence, I write optimistically about the possibilities of ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness. I believe ordinary ethics to be an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now, both possible and desirable. The greater the possibility for ordinary ethics in relationship, the better. Ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness can be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better.

What is crucial here, though, is that the desirable condition of gentleness is not defined as a state which we are working to achieve, but rather as an orientation, an approach, an invitation to a consistency of response to relationship and the world. Gentleness, the optimal quality of the relational field for ordinary ethics, is here understood as the uncommodifying quality of relationship (hereness-withness-nearness) that becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty” does not dominate as an expectation in any particular situation. In this way, discernment, evaluation, and political critique are built into this understanding of gentleness. Not only this, but self-discernment, self-awareness, and self-critique come along with it, too. Understanding one’s own contribution to the elimination of uncertainty dynamics within a relational field is the sine qua non of response-ability in the cause of ordinary ethics.

An environment suffused with ordinary ethics provides an informal, uninstitutional, and uncommodifying realm of vernacular ethics that supports us in generating subtle and spontaneous responses of possibility. When the conditions are right for ordinary ethics to flourish, those same conditions will support human flourishing more generally. The relational fields we shape also shape us. When the conditions are not right, when we maintain environments where ordinary ethics becomes the adjacent unlikely, we reduce our possibilities for helpful change and hamper our work as catalysts of the art of being human.

Implications for research and practice

Unfortunately, there is not room here for a full discussion, but there are certain issues that I see as important in the discussion of enclosing dynamics within the coaching profession. The allure of the gravities of the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty are strong. They have been experienced time and time again by each profession as people seek to stabilise the community they have created. Among the issues that come to mind are the following:

  • Codification, Certification, and Professionalization: the gravities of bureaucratization and administration are strong, and sometimes appropriate. It is important to keep the purpose of codification, certification, and professionalization in mind, and never to allow them to become ends in themselves;
  • Complicity within enclosing institutional environments: often in executive coaching we find ourselves working within organisations which are, to say the least, unhealthy. As coaches it is important to clarify our role and influence as catalysts within enclosing institutional environments, and to signal our potential complicity as cogs within institutional systems that offer much less than the optimal conditions for human flourishing;
  • Quietly manipulative techniques and techics: As the character Dream says in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps.” Tools are used a lot in coaching. It is important to know where tools come from, from values are embedded within their quiet directivities, and whether the particular tools we choose may, indeed, be more in line with the dynamics of enclosure than we might wish;
  • Excessive goal- and solution-focused language/practice: both the goal-that-must-be- achieved and the problem-that-must-be-solved are classic elimination-of-uncertainty structures in thought and practice. The language we use can either foster and facilitate the dynamics of enclosure or it can allow us to challenge them;
  • Excessive branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice: with professionalization comes a concern for individual commercial protection. However, it may be that branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice have become adjacent probables in the coaching world. When this happens it can run counter to the openness required for the healthy development of a community of research and a recognised discipline;
  • Enclosing theoretical models: theoretical models are tools, too. Where do they come from? Why do we choose the ones we choose? In what ways might they limit or facilitate our research imaginations? I have stated above that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic practice tend to be enclosing in character. This goes for theoretical models as well;
  • Personal dispositional inclinations: we only ever make the contributions that we make, and the disposition we bring to our work will characterize that contribution. Be the change that you want to see.As noted above, the approach that follows from the register analysis above could be summarised as “Listen to yourself, listen to your situation; listen to your client, listen to your situation.” Coaching can be an enclosing art. Like any profession, it can be practised badly. We have the potential to do harm. It is not enough to know that we are on the side of the angels. I work to find a more subtle theoretical model to understand the governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and interaction so that I might be less likely to do harm.Coaching can also be a vital change tool for a more hopeful world. Through a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005, p. 26). To practise the profession of coaching can indeed be to practise a hopeful art, a gentle art.


    Breggin, P.R., 1997. The Heart of Being Helpful: Empathy and the Creation of a Healing Presence. New York: Springer.

    Butler, L.S.J. 1999. Registering the Difference: Reading literature through register. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Foucault, M., 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. New York: Vintage Books.

    Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

    Johnson, S. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. London: Allen Lane.

    McCann, A., 2002. Beyond The Commons: the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the elimination of uncertainty, and the politics of enclosure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Limerick. URL: http://independent.academia.edu/anthonymccann

    O’Neill, M.B., 2007. Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    Power, C., 2006. Presence in play: a critique of theories of presence in the theatre. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. URL: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/3428/1/2006PowerPhD.pdf

    Senge, P.M., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J., and Flowers, B.S., 2005. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

    Silsbee, D., 2008. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Topp, E.M., 2006. Presence-Based Coaching: The Practice of Presence in Relation to Goal- Directed Activity. Ph.D. Dissertation Summary. Institute of transpersonal Psychology. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. URL: http://www.slideshare.net/shiftalliance/presence- study-8666618



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