Words Make Worlds
Issue 14
February 5th, 2024

Soft Eyes

Hi, and welcome to this week’s edition of 🌍 Words Make Worlds. Here in California we’ve been experiencing yet another atmospheric river + bomb cyclone (these new weather words are very grand) which has caused alternating power and internet outages so this is hitting your inbox a little later than usual.

Now that we’ve gone through the full methodological arc of the coaching conversation I’d like to get back to the ways of being that good coaching requires. Because more than a set of questions or techniques, good coaching is fundamentally a shift in how we show up and step into relationship with others — a shift that enables a collaborative and co-creative partnership between the coach and the person being coached.

What do I mean by all of this? By way of example, my first professional coaching program was the year long Integral Coaching Certification with New Ventures West. For the first four months of the program students work on developing the body of a coach, which includes daily meditation, reflective practices, and exercise alongside a custom designed year-long development program to deepen each person’s capacity to show up in life with more presence, capacity, and awareness. There is no discussion of coaching methodology or what it means to be in a coaching conversation until significant time has been spent on developing these new ways of being.

Kung-fu has a parallel approach (or at least it used to). According to my Sifu, back in the day students of Kung Fu were required to spend a full year practicing Sei Ping Ma — the foundational stance of southern-style Kung Fu — before being able to progress to things like hand strikes, blocks, and kicks, let alone forms. In today’s world of instant gratification and participation trophies that business model is no longer viable, but the story emphasizes the importance of all the things that are essential to becoming proficient at an art that at first glance don't look like practicing the art itself.

Hopefully these two examples help paint a clearer picture of what I mean by “a shift in how we show up.” As with learning any new art form, coaching asks us to practice foundational elements that change how we see, understand, and move in the world, to practice in such a way that our body transforms into a unique expression of the art itself. As we integrate these foundational elements into our conversations we more naturally inhabit the posture that coaching requires to build a true co-creative partnership.

When it comes to the non-methodology side of things, we’ve covered this a little in the Curiosity, Optimism, and Awareness issues, and I plan to spend the next several weeks talking more about all the things that are not “coaching” that make coaching effective.

To that end, today I want to talk about the idea of “soft eyes”. This is one of those techniques that is great not just for coaching but for just about everything in life. I’ve found folks in the fields of horseback riding, journalism, martial arts, detective work, art therapy, and coaching all talking about the powerful practice of soft eyes.

The Idea

“If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes – you staring at the same tree missing the forest.” - Detective Bunk, The Wire

Soft eyes is a way of looking at the world with wide open awareness. This awareness is attuned both to the world around us, as well as the world inside of us. An awareness that can simultaneously keep us connected to ourselves as well as others. Soft eyes gives us access to the widest amount of information possible — the act of softening our eyes transforms our entire body into an instrument of receiving. So while soft eyes has a direct link to vision, it is also connected to all the ways in which we sense and understand the world.

Hard eyes, on the other hand, is a narrow and intense awareness. Hard eyes picks out one thing and locks in on it. In societies where we are taught to make eye contact and that its rude to look away, hard eyes tends to be the more dominant way of looking at the world. Years ago I had a coaching supervisor who, after watching one of my sessions, noted that my gaze was very intense. “Well of course it is!” I thought. “I wanted to give my client all of my attention.” But the intense focus of hard eyes puts us at a disadvantage because we lose access to critical information available outside the line of focus, and that “outside” is where the good stuff comes from in coaching conversations.

Interestingly, when we focus intensely on something — be it another person or a difficult work challenge, our pupils dilate, our breathing becomes more shallow, and the muscles in the face harden. Which is very similar to what happens in the fight/flight response kicks in, releasing hormones and neurotransmitters into the bloodstream to prepare the body for action. The fight/flight response includes some of the same physiological responses as intense concentration — dilated pupils, shallow breathing, and tightened muscles. Studies have shown that in this activated state it is actually harder to see faces, pick-up on facial cues, and empathy also becomes less accessible. So there are very real biological changes that impact what and how we are able to see. The paradox of focused attention is that overfocus leads to disconnection rather than connection!

Soft eyes is kind of an antidote to being at the edge of fight or flight. Soft eyes keeps our nervous system more grounded, which makes it easier to respond from a place of awareness when the unexpected comes into view, both literally and metaphorically. Reg Harris writes, “In an interview with New Dimensions Radio, psychologist Carol Pearson says we need to navigate our journeys with ‘soft eyes.’ According to Pearson, seeing with soft eyes means maintaining the focus needed to pursue our goals while, at the same time, keeping our vision open for other possibilities that may be available to us. Pearson calls this perspective ‘seeing the periphery’ of our lives. It’s on the periphery that we might find other, unanticipated options or opportunities that could help us reach our goal more quickly or that might present a different, more fulfilling purpose.”

The Practice

With soft eyes, you let your eyes physically relax. Instead of focusing on one thing, you allow that thing to be at the center of your gaze, while simultaneously taking in the largest possible expanse within your full field of vision. This includes peripheral vision both to the left and right, as well as above and below. By using soft eyes you increase your awareness of everything going on around you. - Lori Albrough

The practice instructions below are a modified version of the technique as described Sally Swift’s book, Centered Riding (1985), who picked up the practice of soft eyes from both Aikido and the Alexander Technique.

  1. While sitting quietly, focus very intently on one thing in your environment. Keep looking intently at the object. Concentrate on its exact outlines, its shape, density, color. Take everything in acutely. This is the practice of looking with hard eyes.
  2. Now relax your eyes. Let the object be the general center of your gaze, but look at it with your peripheral vision taking in the largest possible expanse, above and below as well as to the left and right. Be aware of the whole wide world. Sit comfortably with open eyes and have the feeling of going within yourself as your eyes encompass everything that comes into your field of vision. Remember that you are still aiming at the central object. This is the practice of looking with soft eyes.
  3. Try another experiment. While remaining where you are shift back and forth between hard eyes and soft eyes. Which way do you suppose is easier to build a trusting relationship in a coaching conversation? To get all the information you need from yourself, the other person, and the environment? You will quickly find that it is much easier to get this information when using soft eyes. The more area you encompass with your eyes, the more you'll be aware of everything including yourself. Be careful not to glaze or make your eyes fuzzy, just to soften the gaze and take in more of the world.

Some useful imagery that can also support your practice of soft eyes is to keep the eyes open looking ahead, not glazed. Allow your eyes to become tools for awareness, and let your body feel like jelly, letting go of any hardness or tension that you may be experiencing.

Hopefully you are beginning to sense that soft eyes is much more than just a way of looking. Sally says that using soft eyes is like a new philosophy. It is a method of becoming acutely aware and sensitive to all life has to offer — both what is directly in your field of vision but also beyond what you can see with your eyes. You become aware of the whole, not just the parts. Soft eyes move the body into a receptive mode that can listen to the world on a very deep level.

Or to put it another way, as a former Reddit once said, “Soft-eyes is a most elegant ‘life hack’.”

Quotes I ❤️

Whether as individuals, as companies or organizations, or as countries, our authentic power comes from our sense of connection with one another and the world around us. We find that connection when we see with soft eyes – when we engage with life from an open heart and mind, an awareness that everything is in some way connected to everything else, and a willingness to be present and work with whatever feelings arise. - Alan Seale

I really love the practice of soft eyes and I hope you do too. Have fun with this and see you in a few weeks!


Sign-up to receive Words Make Worlds in your inbox.

Your privacy is very important to me. I will not sell or share your email address, nor include tracking pixels in any emails I send to your inbox. You can unsubscribe instantly at any time.