On Being Present
Sunday, March 7, 2021
The concept of “presence” eluded me for some time. Based on some muzzy ideas that I formed over time, I’ve associated presence with how others see me in one-on-one or group meetings. Several questions bothered me. Am I friendly enough or too nice? Am I critical enough or overly critical? Do people see me as soft and gentle and thus ineffective, or do they find me intimidating? Am I giving enough direction, or am I too vague or, worse, overly prescriptive? There is no easy way to know.
I’ve been inconsistent in my approach of being present with varying outcomes. I could get away as long as I was an individual contributor, but as I made my career change, I was left with a troubling realization that I have no formula for conducting myself, and I was “winging it.”
We associate presence with leadership. We attribute “being present” to being charismatic, energetic, confident, commanding, perhaps intimidating, witty, sharp-looking, steering the course, etc. I also thought that leaders were supposed to command others’ attention through “leadership presence.”
There is plenty of leadership mumbo-jumbo on the Internet to tell you that “if you want to be perceived as a leader, you have to have gravitas,” and that gravitas is “that certain something that makes a great leader.” There are plenty of kitchen sink articles like The 5 Cs of Leadership Presence and 12 Habits for Building Leadership Presence that further confuse and make the concept of presence distant from day-to-day lives for most of us.
Even Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern’s 2004 book Leadership Presence confused me when I first opened the first chapter with the title “Presence: What Actors Have That Leaders Need.” I had to read the book a second time to skim for the parts that made sense and opened my eyes. This book has some great nuggets, but I had to mine for those.
It took a few iterations for me to learn about presence. I realized that this concept is simple and yet fundamental. When combined with inquiry skills, this concept can be a very productive tool to influence and produce excellent outcomes. I’ve come to appreciate that what differentiates a poor interaction from a great interaction with others is your presence. Furthermore, the farther you get from real work in the corporate hierarchy, being present is the only effective way to lead.
As I realized that presence means nothing but being present, being in the moment, and not in the past and not in the future, parts of Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern’s began making sense to me. As I re-read the book, nuggets like below started appearing.
It means being present in the moment — focused totally and completely on what is happening right here and right now. It means, when you’re with people, giving them your full attention, so that they will feel recognized and motivated. (Page 18)
When you’re not present to the people you lead, it weakens their willingness to commit. (Page 18)
The key characteristic of that behavior, we think, is flexibility. It’s the willingness and ability to move and adapt freely as circumstances prescribe right now. (Page 51)
You must practice being in the moment with people. That’s the only way you can properly assess which role is appropriate to play. (Page 65)
(Here the role refers to one of “captain”, “conceiver”, “coach” or “collaborator” from page 63.)
Here is what it means for me to be present in practice.
When I’m talking to another person, I’m hearing what the person is saying, perceiving any emotions, and asking questions to learn more. I’m not thinking of what happened to me 5 minutes ago, what I like to do later in the day, or some other task or concern. I’m not looking at my watch, not my phone, not my email, and not certainly checking Twitter or Facebook. I’m giving 100% of myself to the moment and the subject of my meeting that person.
Similarly, when I’m in a group, I hear what others say; I’m drawing patterns, asking clarifying questions to seek information and validating assumptions, observing what people are saying, how they are saying, and feeling the temperature of the room. Through these steps, I’m focused on what is happening at that moment in that group. I’m helping the group stay focused on the subject of that meeting by merely asking questions. Again, I’m not distracted by checking email or multi-tasking.
But being present is hard. I rarely get it right 100% of the time. Many things sabotage us from being present. Our brains are like monkeys that wander across topics thinking, feeling, and planning. At least for me, my default state of mind is mental chatter. Furthermore, tools we use at work like emails and slack messages further add to our mental chatter. Consequently, being present takes effort.
Here are a few techniques I’m incorporating to improve my ability to be present.
- Noting and tucking things away: I take a few minutes after most tricky meetings to note items down and tuck them away before jumping into the next thing I want to work on or my next meeting. This brief activity helps me declutter and calm my mind before I get to the next topic. Besides, I review my calendar the evening before and make mental or written notes about most of my upcoming meetings. This step helps me better prepared for the impending clutter.
- Inquiring: The second technique is to stay focused by asking questions and listening, and not assuming. You can ask open-ended questions to bring details out. You can ask questions to surface blockers and hidden assumptions. You can ask questions to stretch people out of their current comfort zones. When you think you’ve asked all the needed questions, consider asking few more questions. Finally, depending on your situation, don’t hesitate to switch from humble forms of inquiry to confrontational forms. I highly recommend Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling on the subject of inquiry.
- Minimizing bookmarking: I think of bookmarking as the habit of accumulating pointers to information to read, process, and return to those later instead of dealing with it at the moment. It is like opening a new tab in your browser and keeping it open in the hopes of getting back to it when you have the time. As tempting as bookmarking is, it gives you an escape pass from being present. First, I will never have enough time to read and understand everything. Second, even if I have the time, it’s irresponsible to assume that I can build the context and master every topic. Third, even I have the time and can develop the context and mastery, it’s arrogant to assume that my deep understanding of that subject can help others do their job better.
Steps like this take practice and training to form muscle memory. I’m leaning on journaling to sharpen my approach. More about journaling later.