At an ‘Executive Presence’ workshop I was running recently, the corporation’s chief council stood up to make a few introductory remarks. She recounted how while talking to a recruiter she listed all the qualifications she was looking for in her next hire, and she concluded with “presence”. There was a pause, and then the recruiter replied, “presence, well that will definitely cost you more”. Wow, I thought, people are finally figuring out that presence itself has value; it’s a commodity.
What precisely is presence? How does it manifest itself? Can you get more? Is presence connected to your role or title, how you’re perceived, and is that fixed or mutable? Why is it people with presence seem to effortlessly persuade and move audiences, and why do they connect while others find it almost impossible? How can you craft a powerful, authentic presence that is aligned with your values?
Presence consists of a series of actions
These are not easy questions, and all of us must start by addressing the very concept of presence. It is not merely a certain charisma, or confidence, or energy as so frequently defined. Many think that you’re either born with it or you’re not. But presence consists of understanding and engaging with this very moment in novel, challenging and authentic ways. As such, presence is a series of actions. Those actions consist of the way you move, speak, think, listen and meet the present. All of these elements combine to tell a story, and that story is you, and it resides in your body.
There are countless articles and books written about how to “present,”and one of the first recommendations always given is to practice, to learn the material and do it over and over. That’s fine advice. But in order to present you must be present. And I want to focus on a different, more subtle kind of practice.
You must check in with the body
One practice –that requires practice –which enables presence, is to consciously check in with the body. What do I mean by that? Because we are so deeply habit-driven and live such stressed, hectic lives we rarely, if ever, stop; simply stop, and feel what’s going on inside of our bodies. Where is there tension? How deep or shallow is the breathing? What is the body saying, this second, about how you’re feeling about the situation you’re in? A headache, tense shoulders, tight gut, clenched buttocks –the body expresses what we repress. But those are very overt signals. Subtle ones are there as well, always, but they take time and practice to tune in to and notice. By checking in, doing a brief head to body scan, often, gently, with an open mind –you can learn a great deal about how you manage situations and begin to consciously notice habitual reaction systems that remove you from the present.
But checking in is just the first step. Once you begin to notice how your body reacts, carries tension and manifests feelings, this awareness needs to be attended to. But how?
There’s no single answer to that. Sometimes the only action to be taken is a long slow deep breath into the stressed or tense area of the body. Sometimes just stopping is a choice (often when stopping a multiplicity of possibilities open up before us). Sometimes just observing and waiting is the best action to take. That is another key to presence; being absolutely in the present to the vast possibilities of choice of reactions that the current moment offers.
You must listen to your body
Sometimes the body tells us far more than we consciously are aware of and we need time to figure out what the underlying situation is. We need time to think. That is when listening becomes crucial: listening not only to the body, but to the dynamics in the room, to the subtext beneath the words, to the unspoken dynamics and needs. Often listening is the best that can and should be done until we can figure out our next steps. But people are so reluctant to listen. I’ve had female clients tell me that “women listen far too much as it is”. I can only ask –listen how? Because from my experience the practice of listening –totally, with one’s entire being –body, mind, ears, heart, eyes –is something I’ve encountered very rarely. To be in the presence of one who listens like that is amazing. Often for such listeners their clarity of intention and breadth of empathy far out weights anything said.
Clearly that recruiter was onto something. Presence is not a mystery, but a skill set and a valuable one at that. The good news is it’s a skill available to each and every one of us. All we have to do is take the time to notice, fine tune our attention, feel our body, listen, pause, and enter the present moment. Easy? No. Doable – absolutely.