The Power of Presence in Positive, Trusting Relationships

Photo of two young men on couch with book.Check & Connect mentors are trained in building trusting relationships with at-risk students to help them engage with school and learning, and ultimately graduate from high school. Numerous research findings prove the effectiveness of the program as it pertains to academic engagement and persistence in school (Selected Findings from Check & Connect Research Studies). But are there additional benefits to students specifically because of Check & Connect’s focus on building positive, trusting relationships?

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Daniel Siegel entitled “Cultivating Wellbeing Through Relationships” because of my interest in healthy relationships as a wife and mother of two young children, and also to see if there might be some connections between Siegel’s work and Check & Connect (I serve as the Check & Connect communications coordinator).

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development – and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. At his talk, sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, he spoke of the interplay between the brain, the mind, and relationships in fostering wellbeing and health. What seemed most relevant to Check & Connect however was his focus on the power of presence in developing trusting relationships.

Positivity and Negativity

One of the simpler points to grasp from his talk was the difference between positivity and negativity in relationships and how they impact us. Siegel offered an experiential exercise to the audience to illustrate his point. He asked people to be present and aware of their body’s responses when he spoke two words repeatedly: first “No!” with a firm tone repeated 6 or 7 times, and second “Yes!” with a soft tone repeated 6 or 7 times. He then asked audience members how it felt. People reported feeling a sense of punishment, fear, and restriction when hearing the word No; Siegel explained that this is a reactive state. And in response to the word Yes, audience members reported feeling open, safe, calm, comforted, and soothed; Siegel identified this as a receptive or integrated state. Thus we had a felt sense of how overt positivity and negativity can impact the body and the mind.

Many disengaged students like those enrolled in Check & Connect often hear the word No from adults in their lives and attention is often paid to what they’re doing wrong rather than what they’re doing right. According to Dr. Angie Pohl, Check & Connect researcher, the role of the Check & Connect mentor is to say Yes and to be the positive voice who praises students for small successes and works with students to find solutions when no one else may be doing so. We train Check & Connect mentors to be the positive support for students and help advocate for their success, celebrating small and big achievements.

Building Trust

“In healthy relationships… the portal to integration is presence.”
-Daniel Siegel

We all know that trust doesn’t just happen in relationship. Trust takes time and energy to build. The Check & Connect manual has numerous resources for strengthening your relationships with students. As an additional resource, it might be helpful for mentors to consider Siegel’s approach of practicing presence and progressing through the P.A.R.T. acronym (think of the part we play in fostering healthy relationships):

  • Presence: mindful awareness, how we are fully open to what is emerging within and between us, a state of receptivity
  • Attunement: focusing our attention on the internal experience of another person or even ourselves (this ability is made possible with compassionate presence)
  • Resonance: an interactive experience that allows the person to “feel felt” and understood (the outcome of attunement)
  • Trust: what emerges in a relationship when presence, attunement, and resonance are experienced

Dr. Siegel suggests that parents can practice PART to help build secure attachments with their children. He concluded that presence is the gateway to wellbeing… being present within yourself and in relationship to others. And that helping others with mindful awareness leads to kindness and compassion.

So as Check & Connect mentors, by virtue of building trusting relationships with your students and helping them succeed in school, you may in fact be fostering your students’ wellbeing, and even, quite possibly, in building a kinder, more compassionate community.



Does any of this resonate with your experience of building trusting relationships? Please share in the comments below.


About the Author: Megan Dushin is the communications coordinator for Check & Connect at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. 

© 2014 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

One thought on “The Power of Presence in Positive, Trusting Relationships

  1. Dr. Siegel’s approach resonates with me. Working relationships are the medium through which change occurs. Our ability to attune to at risk student needs is pivotal to helping them to succeed.

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