I have noticed over the years a mastery of this thing I call presence – projecting a sense of ease. Well, perhaps not entire mastery, but certainly an ability to live it. An awareness of the emotional responses I have to my own thoughts and feelings as well as consciousness of external stimuli and my emotional responses to them, is a state of mind.
When there is a clarity of mind – not an absence of emotion, the latter I believe is unnatural – you are able to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in the room. You are present. You tap into the limbic part of the brain, the part of the brain that controls emotional intelligence – our emotional ability to respond to stimuli.
I was a keynote speaker at a recent business event
I was talking about this very thing – presence and its value for business owners. An audience member shouted out a question, some may say a heckler. “You’re being emotional!” “Yes, I am,” came my reply.
At this point, I was telling them a story about my experience of sexual abuse to highlight a moment of fight or flight. “And how do you feel right now, sir?”
He went on to say, “Well, umm…what I mean is, you seem to be overly emotional.” I paused, giving myself space to experience my emotion, and then said, “And how do you feel right now, sir?” The man started shuffling in his chair. “I don’t know. I feel uncomfortable.” Another pause, “Good.” I then turned to the wider audience and said, “This is precisely what I mean when I say connecting authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others.” Someone had an emotional response to what I was saying (and I know others had too).
I went on to clarify that I was not suggesting you use stories of sexual abuse in business to facilitate a connection between you and your audience. What I was saying was that we human beings are emotional. When we use appropriate stories to convey a message, stories we ourselves connect with on an emotional level, others connect with us too. We tap into the limbic part of the brain which is the basis for all emotional response.
Whether you walk in head held high or not, wanting to be noticed is all about flow
It’s positive energy versus negative energy. For me, it’s very much like playing tennis. When I’m in a state of lack, I’m concerned with how I need to move my feet, where the ball’s going to go, who the opponent is, whether they’re better than me, and I mess it up. But when I’m in flow, when I’m not concerning myself with those things, I’m phenomenal at tennis. Well maybe phenomenal in my eyes. Perception is nine-tenths of the law.
It’s exactly the same with improvisation. I used to run an improv theatre company. When I or other actors were concerned with the outcome, the scene falls to pieces. A famous tennis pro with an incredible backhand once said, “Letting go of the point you’ve just lost is crucial to paying attention to the shot you’re about to make.”
When I was directing ‘Your Line or Mine?’ our improv show, I kept on saying to the actors, “Stop playing for the laugh. Just play the truth in the story, and the laugh will come.” When you’re in flow and you’re not concerned with the outcome or attached to an outcome, things happen. You have a presence.
I believe life is about experiencing, just being, rather than having a set path and sticking to it. This allows you to experience the experience. When you’re not in flow, and you’re fixated on the end goal, you don’t see or experience. You still have a presence. It just doesn’t serve you or others.
Most people think you are born with presence or without it, or that circumstances lead you, if you’re lucky, to develop it at an early age. And if the right circumstances never quite align, well, too bad. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
In my experience, presence is the result of certain ongoing choices you make and actions you take or fail to take. Presence is a set of skills, some of which are driven by ‘the heart’ (the limbic and initial layers of the neocortex part of the brain), and other skills are driven by ‘the head’ (the substantive neocortex – this is the seat of thought, containing the centres that put together and comprehend what the senses perceive).
I believe that virtually anyone can develop and improve their ability to tap into these parts of the brain consciously, and then eventually subconsciously without the need for thought. That’s presence.
It’s not an easy task
Finding presence may require you to give up habitual patterns of behaviour that you maintain because they make you feel safe. Developing presence will require you to go places and do things that feel uncomfortable, at least initially.
As leaders (of self and others), we ought not be solely focusing on making a better impression. Yes, being impressive is part of it. But to be truthfully impressive, we need to embrace presence entirely. We need to be truthful leaders.
I am drawn to the theatre analogy. That’s my life. Just because you have won the lead in a play or a leadership title at work doesn’t mean you automatically hold any more sway over your audience or your team.
It is your performance in both the theatrical sense and the organisational sense that will grant you the authority your title or role implies. In this regard, your performance is purely about building trust. To build trust requires you to have presence, be truthful, and bring real, relevant, appropriate emotion to bear.
Living and leading intentionally, with purpose, in each moment. The truth (the presence) you bring to your role – how you show up, how you connect, how you feel, how you speak, listen, act – every move you make on the corporate or real stage, combine to create the impact you have.
Presence comes from within
It is released when you live your purpose, and it brings about an impact. It begins with an inner state. And how we deal with our inner world drives everything. Every aspect of how we love, how we live, how we parent, and how we lead.
Our inner state leads to a series of external behaviour: the use of your voice, body language, eye contact etc. You can put on the behaviours, but by themselves they’ll lack something essential. They’ll be hollow noises and nothing else. Think about it. The conventional view of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, is rigid. And rigidity in the face of complexity breaks you down. We need greater levels of emotional agility for true resilience.
In the political leaders debates of recent times, we’ve all heard politicians say, “I feel your pain,” when we know they’re simply saying what they think we want to hear.
Now compare that to Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech. His emotion came from his deeply held beliefs, and it motivated a generation to overturn four hundred years of assumptions and behaviours.
Oh, and he never showed people a series of PowerPoint slides either.
Try this practice out next time you have a meeting
Before the meeting, decide on an intent. Answer the question: how do I want to show up?
Pick a word that motivates you to behave in a certain way. For example, I might choose thought-provoking. When I am being thought-provoking, I possess a certain energy; a presence, which is different to being playful.
Obviously, you must still participate in the meeting, but in this exercise, pay attention to how you talk to others. Notice your body. The words you choose. Your tone of voice. Where you sit in relation to others.
Notice what you choose to do with your hands, arms, eyes, your position in the room etc. when you have a motivating intention front of mind.
- What did you notice about your presence? Was it any different?
- What did you notice about how you felt?
- Describe how you conducted yourself in the meeting. Identify just three words.
- What did you notice about others’ reactions to you?
Feed-forward after the meeting
- What did I do well when engaging others in the meeting I should do more of?
- What could I do to improve next time?
- What am I grateful for in myself?
Written by Deon Newbronner.
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