8 Things That Improve When You Train Your Presence
People know ‘presence’ is a ‘good thing’.
Like a nice smile.
Or a spare hair-clip.
They’re not so convinced you can train it — that investing time or money in ‘enhancing presence’ is a smart use of scarce resources.
Training people to develop greater presence is what I do.
I love it. I see people get excited. They tell me: ‘The 8 Principles changed my life….’!I love that — as you’d expect.
I think presence is the heart of effectiveness in personal and professional spheres.
I also know that what I think doesn’t matter. It’s what the doubters think — people like you perhaps — that matters.
So in this article I’m going to the heart of things: why train presence?
What’s the actual point?
What differences will you notice in your daily life, if you develop and extend your ability to be present with yourself and others?
Once I’d decided to write this, I started listing benefits in my head while walking on a muddy hill near my home, a couple of days ago. I was completely NOT present, totally lost in my thoughts. I stepped in a cold, deep puddle of snow-melt and squirted water all the way up to my knee.
I considered making the first benefit ‘less likely to step in muddy puddles’ but, while that may be true, it’s probably not very relevant to your daily life. It might work as a metaphor, but I want to keep this really direct and simple.
Here are 8 changes you WILL notice if you genuinely train your presence.
1. You’ll communicate better
This one is really simple. Communication is not only about saying your prepared speech or showing your powerpoint. Communication is conversation. It’s two-way. It’s give-and-take. An exchange. Even if you’re doing all the talking, communication involves recognising when what you say is working, when it’s falling flat; when you are captivating your audience, when losing them; when to risk that joke, when not. If you’re not present during a live exchange, listening and responding, you might as well just send an email.
Communication is a living thing. Living things need attention.
2. You’ll connect better
This follows on from Number 1. Good communication needs good connection.Most communication is non-verbal. How someone says things (tone and rhythm) and what they do with their body, carry more meaning than the words they use. If you’re not present with someone, you risk missing what they’re actually communicating — the meanings beyond the meanings. You can understand all the words, and still miss the meaning of a conversation.If you’re the one doing the communicating, if you’re not present, you leave yourself wide-open to misinterpretation. Your words may well conflict with the tone and physical language you use when delivering them.
Authentic, effective communication occurs when all three layers of meaning reinforce each other — the actual words, how they are said, and the details of the body that’s doing the talking. (One of the reasons online communication is so easily misinterpreted is that you don’t have the second and third of these layers to help contextualise the meaning of words…….).
Communication happens INSIDE the web of tiny cues and responses that makes up living conversation. Authentic, effective communication needs connection. Connection happens in the present.You always, deep-down, know when someone is not present with you. You know when someone’s not listening to you, even if they continue to smile and nod. (‘Yes, I’m listening’, he says, as his eyes drift away to the window……). Recognising genuine connection is hardwired into your system. If you really want to connect with someone, and you really want someone to connect with you, pretending to be present is not going to cut it. You don’t get to fake this stuff. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes in ‘Descartes’ Error’: We cannot fool ourselves any more than we can fool others when we only smile politely….’ (‘Descartes’ Error’ p.149.)
If you want connect with someone, you need to be genuinely present with them. There are no shortcuts.
3. You’ll be more confident
Lack of confidence is based in fears about ‘what-if…?’: What if I fail? What if people laugh at me? What if I screw up?
Confidence comes from experience and preparation. It also comes from trusting you’ll be capable of responding to whatever is thrown at you. You can plan for the expected, but confidence is knowing you can deal with the unexpected. The unexpected — by definition — pops up in the present: it’s not something you can plan for. Opening up to ‘now’ lets you replace the ‘what-if’ voice with the ‘what-is’ voice; What is happening now? What is being said or asked of me now? What is the best way to respond now?
This is crucial to feeling and projecting confidence.
How do you best respond to the unexpected, to the curve-balls that get lobbed in your direction? Be open, receptive and aware. Be present.
4. You’ll be calmer
Focusing on the present stops you focusing on the past, possible futures or imaginary alternative realities. You know the kind of thing: ‘why didn’t I….?’, or ‘I wonder if she will….?’, or ‘I wish I was….’. Each thought you have costs you something. Every time you jump from thought to thought you pay a price too. Unnecessary thoughts use mental resources. Those resources are not then available to spend on what you really need to be paying attention to.
Jumping from past to future to alternative realities and then back to the present is exhausting. It drains energy from your system. Training your mind to stay focussed on the present saves that energy. As a consequence, you feel calmer. Calm is a really good place to make good decisions from.
5. You’ll be more authentic
In some ways this is a tricky one. What is it to be ‘authentic’? All of us have multiple avatars — you’re one ‘you’ with a parent, another with a lover, a third with a friend, and many different manifestations of ‘you’ in different professional contexts.
Is there are ‘authentic’ you?
Well — sort of. (Chris Niebauer’s book “No Self, No Problem” is particularly interesting about this)
Certainly you experience yourself as authentic sometimes. There are times when you feel you’re not faking anything or projecting some image you want others to buy into. There are times when you’re not defending yourself and hiding from other people’s opinions.
Feelings of authenticity come when there’s synchronicity between your inner self, your immediate environment, and what you’re doing. Amy Cuddy in her book ‘Presence’ defines it like this: ‘Presence …is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts , feelings , values , and potential.’ (‘Presence’ p. 24)
Amy Cuddy is suggesting presence comes from authenticity. I’m suggesting authenticity comes from presence. Actually, it’s a two-way street. (You should watch her Ted Talk — it’s great). If you’re not fully present, you can’t absorb and respond to the details of what’s happening. The appropriate ‘avatar’ cannot appear. You might be ‘defensive’ when there’s nothing to defend against. Or inappropriately ‘jokey’ when there’s an undercurrent of seriousness in the room. Finding the most authentic way to respond to a situation needs you accurately to read that situation.
The way to judge how authentically to respond, is to open up to a situation as it unfolds. Put aside assumptions, expectations and fears. That’s almost a textbook definition of presence — be able and willing to open and respond to direct experience.
6. You’ll make better decisions
This follows on from ‘being more authentic’. Authenticity is about a real version of you connecting with what’s really happening. That’s when good decisions happen.
Of course you might plan, anticipate and predict before starting something — especially if you know you’re going to have to make some decisions. But the final test of the ‘rightness’ of any decision comes at the moment it has to be made.
Sometimes the context is not what you anticipated, so the decision you thought you were going to make is no longer appropriate.
Sometimes you get new information during a conversation. It might not change your decision, but might change how or when you communicate it.
Sometimes the unexpected happens — you are asked for an unanticipated decision! Suddenly, you are on the spot.
How do you make a good decision?
Notice what is actually happening and what it demands of you. Fears, self-doubt, defensiveness, trying to please everyone — none of these help much. What helps is detailed understanding of what’s happening — both what is being said and what is not being said. That’s the basis for sound, appropriate and sensitive decision making.
Notice reality, then respond.
It’s the tiny — often non-verbal — details of a situation that make the difference between effective, appropriate decision-making and blundering on insensitively and ineffectively. You’ll miss these details if you’re lost in your thoughts, or focusing on the past or future.
Decisions happen now, so be present now!
7. You’ll learn more deeply
You learn by experience. It’s actually the only way you learn. Even sitting reading a book is ’an experience’ — it’s the experience of reading a book! The more focused and sustained your attention, the deeper your experience and the better your learning.
Not convinced? Try listening to a podcast about quantum mechanics while watching a movie on Netflix. Try learning origami while cooking the evening meal. (Try writing an article about presence while repeatedly checking social media (believe me, it doesn’t work)).
Quality of learning depends on quality of experience. Quality of experience depends on you being present with what you’re doing and — crucially — sustaining your attention for extended periods of time.
Not just being present. Sustaining your presence.
The more presence, the richer the experience.
The richer the experience, the deeper the learning.
8. You’ll collaborate better
This one’s pretty obvious!You want to collaborate with someone? Be open to what they are offering! You want someone to pay attention to you? Pay attention to them! You want effective communication? Quieten the noise in your head and notice what’s being said — the verbal and the non-verbal.
Even if collaboration is done remotely and asynchronously (with you responding to their emails, them responding to yours….), as you encounter what someone has sent/offered/suggested, be present, so, to the best of your ability, you encounter what they’re actually communicating, unclouded by assumptions and preconceptions.
If you want to collaborate with someone, be with them — whatever that means in the context of your particular relationship.
‘Be with’ is another way of talking about presence.
There are more things I could put on this list, but 8 is enough for now.
Another thing I hear from people when they are considering whether to invest in developing presence is; ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ or ‘it’s something you are born with — or not’.
It’s simply not true.
Presence is a set of techniques. As with any techniques, if you develop your skills, you get results. Not everyone will become super-present and charismatic (just like not everyone who trains their voice will become the best singer in the world) but anyone who carefully works with techniques of presence will become more present and will experience changes in their daily lives as a result.
How to do that?
Well here’s a small hint about developing presence:
The architect Tessenow once wrote:‘The simplest form is not always the best, but the best is always simple’.
There are plenty of books written about Presence and about ways of training presence but for now, let’s go with a simple answer — not because I’m trying to keep secrets, but because sometimes simple is really good:
If you want to be more present, be less distracted.