Presence is the state of being attuned to, and able to comfortably express your true self – your best qualities, your core values, your personality – and really to do so under stressful circumstances. Because when you can do that, you are then able to kind of let your guard down and hear what’s actually happening in the situation rather than what you fear might be happening. Presence comes from knowing your story, really knowing who you are – knowing what your core values are, what makes you “you”.
Sometimes when people get into that stressful situation, they go into fight-or-flight mode; they basically shut down and a wall comes up. When this is the situation, they can’t access the very tools that they actually possess to do well in these kinds of situations.
Everyone has these biggest challenges and there are situations that we approach with a sense of dread that we execute with anxiety and distraction. We are thinking about what they might be thinking of us, what we should have said two minutes ago, what’s going to happen in the future; and then we leave them with a sense of regret, feel that we weren’t seen. These big challenges vary dramatically across people so for some people it might be a job interview or for some people it might be relationship conflict at home or somewhere else. Here is the thing; for a lot of people it’s a job interview. I still can remember how I failed during my internship interview and I still punch my head when I think about those words that came out of my mouth. But you need to accept that “Perfect Line” cannot be reached. Even if you say something you really proud of, you could have come up with a better idea if you think it more. And for god’s sake, do you really think these people are still thinking about how you failed during the interview?
Even if these challenges vary dramatically, we can say there are sort of two key elements. One is that it feels very high stakes so it feels like whatever happens in that situation is going to dramatically affect your life. The other one is that there’s some element of social judgment, so if somebody is judging you on a dimension that really matters to you:
- Are you a good person?
- Are you a smart person?
- Do you know how to talk without failing?
So, the stakes are high and there’s social judgment. Now that happens when you put these things together is that people feel as if they are in a really threatening situation so their nervous system sort of goes into this fight-or-flight mode which might be adapted if you are being chased by a Kardashian but you are not being chased by a Kardashian in a job interview; you’re just in a job interview.
What’s the worst could that happen? You are either going to get the job or you are not going to get the job, that’s it.
The most important thing is to know: “What are your biggest challenges?” Now you probably can come up with some off the top of your head but there might be some that you’re not even really aware of until you’re in them. One way to get at that is to really pay attention to your body:
- What’s happening in the moments when you tend to slouch and wrap yourself up?
- What’s happening when you start to breathe shallowly and quickly?
- What’s happening when your hands start to sweat?
What are the things that are happening in the situation at those moments when you are showing physical signs of stress, anxiety, depression and powerlessness? Once you’ve identified what’s happening in the situation when those things happen, you start to become much more attuned to those bodily cues. So, when they happen in the future, you can course correct earlier.
Living in the present doesn’t always mean you need to be calm and smart-ass. Let me give you an example in the business life. If you think about investors, they are not looking for someone who’s hundred percent confident in the kind of alpha way. They want somebody who’s confident but not arrogant. When you are truly confident you don’t need to be arrogant. Arrogance is really just a smokescreen for insecurity. It’s something people put up when they don’t want to be challenged. It works in that moment but it’s not a sustainable strategy and if you communicate arrogance, you leave that situation the people who you talk to probably aren’t going to like you a whole lot. If arrogance work for Robert Downey Jr., that doesn’t mean it will work for you too.
True confidence allows you to be open to what other people are saying. If you are bringing in an idea that you really care about, you should want that idea to be as good as possible. People want to work with you if they see you as a collaborator, not someone who’s trying to say “I have all the answers.”
The last thing that you see when somebody’s present is synchrony across verbal and nonverbal channels. When we are being authentic and present, you could think of it as when we’re telling the truth, our words match our body language. We’re not having to manage all of these things in a piecemeal kind of robotic way; it’s not choreographed. If we’re telling a happy story, our body’s doing the things we do when we feel happy; that’s how you see authenticity. We know that from the research on lie detection – everyone is sort of interested in lie detection – if you ask people how do you know if somebody’s lying, they will say “eye contact”. It turns out that eye contact is not a good way to know if somebody is lying; there are big personality differences. Some people don’t want to make eye contact when they’re being challenged or questioned but that doesn’t mean they are lying. There are also cultural differences; in some cultures, children are taught you don’t ever look up at or make eye contact with somebody who’s questioning you, so it’s just not a good cue. In fact, there’s no single body language cue that gives away lying – there is no Pinocchio effect.
You can tell if somebody’s being inauthentic of if somebody’s lying by watching, whether or not their words and body language are synchronized. If you are lying or being inauthentic, that’s because you are scared to show people who you are or you are trying to put something that’s not exactly real. So, the story that you’re telling is not going to match what you’re doing with your body language because you don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to manage all of those different elements like words, tone of voice, speaking speed, eyes, the rest of your face, lower body and even your feet. All of those things come together when you’re telling the truth or not.