Noticing potential for movement with more “withness”: How do I (we) see and be seen?

Noticing potential for movement with more “withness”: How do I (we) see and be seen?

European School of Governance research note #240213 by Louise McCulloch

Keywords: seeing, reflection, “withness”, connection, movement



This is a reflective exploration and “moving about” with the question of “how do I see and be seen?” It enquires into the potential importance of the question to relationships and research. The exploration touches upon personal experiences of seeing and being seen with “withness” and “aboutness”. The narrative continues with a series of noticings, moments, and wonderings, each framed as a dance move, metaphorically expressing different personal experiences and facets of seeing and being seen. Themes of vulnerability, agency, and the intricate interplay of darkness and connection emerge throughout this reflective journey. In the final reflections, there is a recognition of the possibility of more “withness” as we “go on” in both personal relationships and research. There is a contemplative wondering of the ethics of research, urging a shift from a focus on knowing to growing where possibility, connection, and vulnerability are embraced. This reflective journey serves as an invitation for readers to imagine and explore their own dances of seeing and being seen, facilitating a deepening understanding of relationality and the potential for growth and connection in shared human experiences.



“Movement forms the I that moves before the I that moves forms movement”

(Maxine Sheets-Johnstone)


I had a conversation with a friend recently where they commented that privilege is the ability to look away and if we wish for a society grounded in love that is an expression of our humanity then not looking away particularly where there is “trauma” and pain might be one of the most important things we can do. As I reflect on this, I sense a potential feeling of simplicity within me, that all we thus need for humanity is for people to look and see (and not look away) particularly when it is hard. However, I also wonder if it is really that simple? Could leaning into our own seeing and being seen (as we move about within it) grow a deepening understanding of potential intricacies and possibilities? At the time of this discussion, the comment above gave new relevance to a question that I had been holding for a few months about “how do I see and be seen?” This question of seeing and being seen had been intermingling between my personal and professional life (as a researcher).  I found myself wondering about how important it is to consider this question for myself and especially in research where the word ‘re-search’ itself seems to suggest that we look again for something as we try to see it. Now I hope that maybe my personal question that started as an “I” could also be meaningful as a “we”. It feels like the way we see and be seen is fundamental to how we be with each other.  And by presencing with more “withness” in our relations, could there be the potential to open up different possibilities and deeper connections in seeing?


Seeing, the “other” and research

Seeing seems to have an influence not just on WHAT we see but also for HOW we relate. As a researcher, I believe in participatory processes that hold people (and living beings) at its centre. So, if I want to relate WITH people then how important is it HOW I see them? Noticing how my seeing might offer for them to feel seen. Also noticing what orientations the seeing I offer facilitates to open or close as a dance emerges. I see my personal experiences and reflections of seeing and being seen as helping me to lean in deeper to notice different moves or potential movements within this dance.

It feels important to recognise that often we seem to view ourselves, as researchers, as being separate from our research focus. This appears to be considered desirable as it is important to remain neutral and not blur objectivity. We may consider our potential influence and try to control it through reflexivity. Yet what if our seeing also partly creates what WE see? What might this invite in terms of relationality in research? I feel a possibility with recognising this and the difference between interaction and intra-action as articulated by Karen Barad:

The notion of intra-action (in contrast to the usual “interaction,” which presumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata) represents a profound conceptual shift. It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of the “components” of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful.”

I am still absorbing this difference into my body and being. I notice the possibility for different orientations through intra-action. Do we consider as researchers that we could be in a dance of intra-action? What possibility could this create?


An invitation

I imagine this research note as a way of sharing my own personal exploration of what I have noticed as I try to “move about” in my seeing and being seen. I plan next to share some experiences of seeing and being seen with “withness” (as noted in the title) and “aboutness” which to me helps to open up different possibilities in seeing and being seen. Subsequently, I share some noticings, moments and wonderings that created distinctions for me to notice current or potential patternings of movement that I feel I sense in my seeing and being seen. I would like to think of my sharing as an openness to playfulness as I try to lean deeper into my experiences and movements with seeing and being seen. I welcome you to join me…


Seeing and Being Seen: Experiences of “withness” and “aboutness

Rather than start with a theory of “withness” and “aboutness” and what they might mean, which furthermore might actually be counterintuitive to the feeling of “withness”. I wanted to try share my bodily experiences (and memories) of seeing and being seen with “withness” and “aboutness”.

Wisdom from my body when seeing with “others”

my body is “a spontaneity which teaches me what I could not know in any other way except through it”



Being seen with “aboutness”: I sense there are times that I have been seen withaboutness”. I notice my body feels hurt and words like ‘contained’, ‘constrained’, ‘invisible’, ‘ignored’ come to mind. What I notice is that someone else tells themselves a story about me and decides based on this story that this is what I am and am not. My presence seems to remind them of something (or someone) and they use that reference to define me. My being seen doesn’t emerge with me as a relational process between us. I exist as a static character that is created for me. This could be helpful if it is a character or story that offers me ‘potential’ in my being and becoming but what if it is not and rather invites stuck-ness or hopelessness? How powerless could those moments feel?

Seeing with “aboutness”: I sense times when I have seen withaboutness” and notice my body feels guilt and pain especially since my body seems to remember hurt feelings of being seen with “aboutness”. It feels like a reaction not a presencing. I notice that I sense that at times my seeing in this way comes from a place of fear, panic or worry and a hypervigilance to protect myself. I notice myself feel vulnerable, wanting to be in control and to ensure a past experience doesn’t repeat itself. I also sense that at times, I have seen with “aboutness” when I want to know, which feels like it comes from my ego rather than my heart. Perhaps to avoid the vulnerability of not knowing? I also recognise how hard it can be sometimes to talk about our experiences and not create characters in our stories and express our fear and anxiety or other emotions. I don’t want to become a ‘Director’ of someone else’s character and their being and thus control their becoming in our relationality. Rather I would prefer if our relationality is something we co-create together in both our beings and becomings.

Seeing with “withness”: I sense times when I have seen withwithness” (or what I sense this is) and notice my body feels calm and open. I notice being completely immersed with another person with a deep sense of attunement while intently listening to everything they say in their words and body. I become aware of my own body and its reactions as I sense how this noticing facilitates me to stay present in this state of intently listening. When something happens that pulls me away from this deep listening, I feel it in my body as it starts to fidget or want to move. In these moments then how do I listen to the other person and to my reaction. My body may react as it senses a possibility or a curiosity and wish to explore this. I notice it can look for openings to bring this in as it notices the possibility between us. I try to stay as fully focused with the other person as possible, as well as the possibility and balance between the being and the becoming. There is also a gentleness as I feel a belief in the moments emerging and a deep trust in everything that is happening. Maybe “withness” is with the person and also with each moment and my own reactions?

Being seen with “withness”: When I sense times that I have been seen withwithness”, I feel gratitude, care and compassion in my body. Words such as ‘gentleness’, ‘interest’, ‘belief’ and ‘trust’ come to mind. I am very grateful to have some very special friends who seem to presence themselves in my heart when I really need them. It is like they can see me even when I think I do not wish to be seen and try to hide. They see through this and patiently share their gentle presence while never imposing or forcing. There is a deep listening. It feels like I am seen in my being and potential becoming with the latter being especially important in moments when I feel lost and like I can’t see myself. There is a flow where we move in and out and about as we see each other together. There is a gentleness where we open to each other a space to just be with whatever is while also noticing what could be.

Note: I think we move through experiences of all of these and I also wonder what would “withness” be without “aboutness”. I also don’t think these experiences are always as delineated as they appear from the descriptions above.


Wisdom from my body when seeing with my self

Your senses are the guides to take you deep into the inner world of your heart…. when the eye opens, it shows that others and the world are outside us, distant from us…Yet, in a wonderful way, the eye as mother of distance makes us wonder at the mystery and otherness of everything outside of us. In this sense the eye is also the mother of intimacy, bringing everything close to us. When you really gaze at something, you bring it inside you.”

(John O’Donoghue)


When I started wondering about the question of how I see and be seen I predominantly noticed my moving about with people. However, the longer I have held this question the more I feel the importance of how I see and be seen by my self. When I think about the experiences above of “aboutness” and “withness”, my patternings and movements with being seen, I wonder how do I embody these in my inner world and my movements here too? It feels like my seeing and being seen in this inner world is entangled with my seeing and being seen in the outer world. I notice there are times that I look away from myself or parts of myself and label my actions with a critical “representational- referential understanding” where I box myself off as too sensitive or too reactive. Perhaps these narratives are ones that we become intimate with from our external world. We could see ourselves with others eyes and usually the ones that put us in a box and saw us with “aboutness”.  I also sense that at times my experience of “aboutness” in my inner world makes it more likely in the outer world. Perhaps it can also work with “withness” too? Could it be helpful if we show love and see ourselves especially if we don’t hold memories of being seen? However, how can we show ourselves an experience we may not have a reference for? Could relational experiences of “withness” with others open up this possibility for our inner world too? Could it facilitate us to be more intimate with “withness”? How could we be with our selves with an abundance of love?


Seeing and Being Seen: Some noticings, moments and wonderings…

The following is an attempt to move about further with my actual and potential seeing and being seen via a series of noticings (where I ‘saw’ something), moments (where I felt something happened and I narrated a story) and wonderings (where I imagined with something I was feeling or noticing). I thought it might be fun to also try create a name for each as we often do with steps or moves in a dance (building with the dance metaphor introduced earlier). I hoped this might facilitate more of the playfulness I wanted to invite.


Noticing a difference between looking and seeing: a widening narrowing gaze move

To see something we need to have developed a way of looking, to hear something we need a way of listening, to touch an object (rather than just a ‘something’) we need a way of feeling (it over)”

(John Shotter)


Ryle (1949) suggests that there can be a difference in verbs which have a task focus or achievement focus. An example he outlines is that looking could be considered a task verb while seeing could be considered an achievement verb. We can look around us and do the task of looking but this is different to seeing. Maybe looking is a wider activity with more openness while seeing is a narrowing where we focus on something and give attention. I also wonder about the phrase ‘looking away’ from the initial framing to this research note. It seems to suggest that we look away from the obvious, that we deliberately see something but choose not to.  Perhaps so that we can reengage in the act of looking rather than seeing. Could this be where privilege comes in because some of us experience choice (or more choice) regarding where or how we can look and thus what we can see? The ability to continue looking without seeing and experience a choice as to what to focus on. The freedom to move about and see may be experienced with more potential movement and openings for some people than others. I notice that often I don’t sense any boundaries in my movements between looking and seeing and I wonder about how I could attune to the movement within this flow?


Wondering about how we could see with our heart:an open heart move”

“Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eyes”

(H. Jackson Brown) 


Do we usually consider seeing as something we do with our eyes and experience in a visual way? We may look at someone, make eye contact and think to ourselves “I saw them“. That is certainly a type of seeing where people can feel acknowledged. If I hold a question of how I see with my eyes or feel seen by eyes then this type of seeing may fit. However, to me it also feels like this seeing could be at a surface level without a recognition of the person existing beyond a physical body form. Could we extend this and notice a person in a physical form as well as recognising a person in their being and becoming? Creating a deeper seeing where we try to experience each other beyond a visual existence and where we also notice each other in a more invisible sensing form.

If I reflect on the quote at the start of this section about how do we see with our hearts then I start to wonder about what this could feel like. Is this where we radically presence ourselves and allow ourselves to be moved as we experience together? A seeing where we allow our whole body, mind and soul to be moved as we witness something or someone and simultaneously receptively open our hearts to allow this to move in there. Or perhaps the seeing came from here to begin with? I wonder about what seeing with an open heart might invite?


Noticing different seeing invites different forms of understanding: a relationally- responsive move

Monologism, at its extreme, denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach (in its extreme pure form) another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness…Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other’s response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any force. Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality”

(Mikhail Bakhtin).


I would like to share some of John Shotters ideas regarding “aboutness (monologic) talk/thinking” and “withness (dialogic) talk/thinking”. He suggests that when we notice ourselves engaging in “aboutness (monologic) talk/thinking” we stand in a separated way from what we are relating to as “uninvolved or disengaged observers”. Our seeing in this way appears to be done primarily with the mind. Not “spontaneously responsive” to each other as living beings. The type of understanding this evokes is a “representational-referential understanding”.

In contrast to this, instead of positioning ourselves in a separated way, we could engage in “withness (dialogic) talk/thinking”. This opens us up to a “relationally-responsive understanding” and where we are within our living relation. This feels like an embodied positioning where we sense our relating to living beings and the “developmental continuity” where there is always a further unfolding of living activities. Maybe we don’t need to “get something” with our seeing but rather notice how we are moving and/or co-creating together? What possibility or further unfolding can happen with an “aboutness” monologism? It feels like relating comes from a place of separation rather than noticing our entwining as living beings together and how we could and do facilitate possibility (desired or undesired) with and for each other. I notice how my response via my understanding creates a context from within which a further response can occur.


Moments feeling deeply the overwhelming power of being seen:a hide, seek and hide…and seek move

“…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”
(Audre Lorde)


I feel it is important to lean deeper into my feelings of being seen as I have had a few moments over the last few months where I felt some of my patternings in a very deep way. I have realised as I have moved about with this question of seeing and being seen the extreme discomfort I feel at times with being seen. I recognise that at times I choose to hide myself away. It is not everybody that I would allow to see me. I think I have had times when I didn’t feel seen so I now have many shields and masks that I dress myself up with. And then I am not sure if everyone is meant to see us either. It is such a vulnerable and powerful experience that I wonder how we are careful with and protective of that specialness.

A few months ago, I had an experience where I recognised that I seem to move through a stage of partially being seen before I am willing to consider being fully seen. It is as if this eases me into the intensity of being seen. I recognised that I enacted a type of hide and seek game. I was co-reflecting with a friend and the conversation felt suddenly deep and I ran to hide. But it was like he immediately got what game we were playing without the rules being spoken. He came to find me and without actually seeing me it was like he said “Louise, I can feel you hiding there and I am here so let me know if you want to be found”. I was seen but without being fully seen. There was the possibility to be seen and I felt seen but without feeling overpowered by it. I still had some agency in it. Not exposed and/or powerless by being seen.


Noticing the tension if two people need to be seen: an impasse move”

“Dialogue in the sense of having a transforming nature operates along a continuum: Sometimes we are less in a dialogic process and sometimes we are more so. What counts is the entirety of the relationship and conversation. In and through dialogue we are both being and becoming.”

(Harlene Anderson)


Seeing and being seen seems to suggest a reciprocity that we move through where we take turns in seeing and being seen. Do we need to be seen so we can in turn see? What if we find ourselves in a moment where we both need to be seen and are therefore finding it difficult to look and see. How do we move past this when we both need to be seen? Do we reach an impasse? Is that where we are often at in society? An impasse of overwhelm where we stop moving. Is it possible in these moments to feel ourselves as deeply as we can or to see each other and try to be present to any hurt and pain or other strong feelings beneath? Perhaps it is as much noticing how we are moving in a flow as it is attuning to what feelings are present. And when (or if) we do standstill at an impasse what could this invite? Maybe it facilitates a slowing down where we may repeat our movements in patterning so we can feel deeper the being and becoming? Or could feelings of being unseen (such as in an impasse) open up the possibility for deep experiences of being seen? Noticing that maybe experiences where we are not seen could make it more meaningful if we subsequently are. There is always a being and a potential becoming.


Wondering about seeing in darkness: a deep connection move

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see”

(Theodore Roethke)


Is seeing really about what our eye materialises or is it much deeper? The Christian mystics have suggested that there is also a type of seeing that only becomes possible in darkness. Gregory of Nyssa referred to it as “seeing that consists of not seeing”. Does darkness invite the possibility for us to deeply presence with each other? In darkness we seem to be hyper attuned to what is happening as we depend on senses and presencing that we may not always use. It feels like there is a seeing of deep connection and community possible here. Does darkness open the possibility for a certain intensity of seeing if we are willing to go there? Perhaps this is with each other and how we are willing to embrace our vulnerability. But maybe it could also be how we can show reverence to the complete unknowability of darkness and the strength that can come from deep trust in those moments? An acceptance where if we stay still long enough for our eyes to adjust then it is possible for something we didn’t know was there to appear.


Final reflection: How could we “go on”?

“What would it mean for us to acknowledge, with genuine humility, the limits of what we can know about the lives and experiences of others? To accept and make room for the radical unknowability of experience? But also to recognise how our own unknowing could help open us to genuine vulnerability, to the possibility of receiving and giving love?”

(Douglas E. Christie)


What could it mean to not look away on a personal level?

As I hold the initial conversation in mind about the importance of ‘not looking away’, I sense how helpful it could be if we could see with “withness” i.e. in a relational emerging dance together. I sense in the world that there is an increasing deep void of being seen where it feels we are often at an impasse with each other. In these moments, where could a relational movement of “seeing” come from? A movement where HOW we see relationally together is as much if not more important than WHAT we see. Recognising that the WHAT may only emerge with the HOW. I am not sure though about where this “seeing” starts when it feels like we are in a world of chronic disconnection. Our seeing can feel so insignificant that we could get pulled into the void. I wonder about how we create the strength to hold ourselves in that. Seeing feels so important for how we meet each other in the world. How can we look and see ourselves and each other with deep care and compassion? And how might our own presencing with experiences of seeing and being seen help us to recognise and realise this as we “go on”?


What could it mean to “see” in research?

As a researcher, I feel more and more the ethics of considering what is emerging and being created in our relations (the “how”) and not primarily focusing on the validity of our seeing. It feels like we are predominantly attuned to what was and is, rather than what could be and the conditions that facilitate that attunement. What could it mean if we embrace research as not always being about knowing but rather how we embrace possibility and connection with each other? Or in other words what we are growing in our relations and with possibility? Or as articulated in the title of Ken Gergen’s award winning article if we move “From Mirroring to World-Making” noticing “research as future forming”. Not about what is static but being with our movements. What kind of seeing do we wish to “enact”? Noticing that reality is not always there to be discovered. Rather noticing how our seeing is central to how we orientate and what we open to be seen and unfold together. I wonder if “aboutness” often overpowers “withness” in our movements and how we “go on” together? Would it be beautiful to have movements with more “withness”, in terms of research, not research to know but rather learning while keeping openness to vulnerability, possibility and connection with each other central?


Would you be open to grow an understanding together as to how we could create movements with more “withness” in our seeing and being seen and embrace this in our hearts for ourselves and each other? …