Copyright © 2014 Bill Gager
It was one of those hard sunny days that you only get in late summer in New England. The sun cut across the water like a laser through a steel door. I didn’t want to be here. I had a million other things I’d rather do and a million other places I’d rather be.
I was taking my father in law and brother in law for a cruise on the Connecticut River. We were leaving the marina in my Sea Ray. I’d done this a million times. Guiding the boat through the narrow gap between finger piers; catching the tide and wind just right to slip into the freedom of the open river was second nature… that is, on every day but today.
No matter what I did, the wind and current managed to pin my back up against the bulkhead. After my fifth attempt, my tactful brother in law slipped in: “I could of gotten us out of here on the first try.” My blood came to full boil. Inside my head I screamed, “Why can’t I do this!”
Operating the Sea Ray constantly reminded me of the need for Presence. There’s an old saying, “Flying by the seat of your pants.” This is how I learned to navigate the notoriously twitchy boat. Given the slightest shift in wind and current, the Sea Ray would have a mind of its own– and not one of the brightest at that. I learned early on that to put the boat where I wanted it to go, I had to feel the boat through the seat of my pants. That day, the seat of my pants and I weren’t even in the same zip code.
Instead of being present with the boat, I was all up in my head thinking about the million other things and places. With my mind all wrapped up in the world inside my head, I was not connected to the real world. If I’ve learned one thing along the way, it is this: With presence, anything is possible; without it, everything comes down to a crapshoot at best.
One of the most common comments made about famous leaders who are known to be charismatic is: “You feel like he/she is completely with you when you meet.” Putting all of our attention on the people in front of us is presence. In today’s world of “multi-tasking” presence is a lost art. Unfortunately, more than art is lost when we lose presence. I once heard someone say: “It’s not multitasking; it’s doing more than one thing badly.” Communicating is one thing we can’t afford to do “badly.”
Our success in this world comes down to our relationships with the people upon whom the quality of our life depends: family, friends, team members, bosses, prospects, and customers. To realize the true potential of these relationships, we need to be able to connect. It is impossible to connect with another if you are not connected with yourself.
All you have to do is look around you. Everywhere you go: home, work, or a shopping mall. Everyone is focused somewhere other than on where and with whom they are. How many times have you seen people sitting across a table from one another texting on their smart phones? Being connected is not the same as being present.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in how people interact in the work place. Rarely does a conversation or meeting go by without the participants being on their smart phone, tablet, or computer. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with people that took place while they were answering countless texts and emails. What gets lost as a result? — Presence.
Presence enables us to tune into the subtle signals that are always around us. If we follow these signals they will help us to find the best way through a situation. In my example of the cruise with my in-laws, the reason I had trouble steering the boat was… I was not tuned into the small signals that would tell me how the wind and current were affecting the direction of my boat. I find that being in tune with these subtle signals gives me advanced notice of the larger changes to come that can knock me off course. The same is true in any interaction with other people. Being present in the situation allows us to tune into the subtle signals given off by the other person(s). These signals, when followed, provide us with the best course to follow to make the connection necessary to influence others.
Many years ago, I was asked to be the speaker at an awards banquet for top producing financial advisors. The organizer of the dinner asked me to give a talk on a specific subject. Right from the beginning, I could feel a subtle energy coming from the audience. The subject of the talk was not connecting with this audience. Fortunately, unlike on the boat, the seat of my pants and I were in the same room; I sensed I had to change course, or I’d lose this audience into the bulkhead.
I stopped my talk. I asked the dinner organizer to turn up the lights. I said to the audience: “I can go on with this talk or we can turn this into an open forum of question and answer. What do you want to do?” I immediately received an almost simultaneous, “Questions and answers,” from 200 hundred voices. A night that was on track to be a real stinker ended up being a great success.
Prior to this night, I would get completely caught up in my presentations with no presence with the audience. In those days I missed the subtle cues that can make the difference between success and failure.
I have many opportunities to observe my clients in interactions with other people. I often see how the client’s lack of presence with the person(s) with whom he/she is talking leads to missing the very signals that would insure the connection necessary to influence a change in that person’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The following are steps you can take to enhance your Presence:
Presence is a decision
The first step in insuring you’re present when you need to be is to commit yourself to the idea of being present. Recently I was working with a senior leader. In a meeting she told me: “I know it seems like I’m not listening; I am. I have to get these emails done.” She knew she wasn’t present yet she believed it was OK. If you wish to connect with people, it is vital that you commit to the idea of being present.
Practice makes presence
Lack of presence is a habit. All habits are built from repetition. If you wish to build the habit of being present, practice every chance you get. After making the decision to be present, take the opportunity to bring yourself back into presence whenever you can. One of the ways I did this was turning off the radio in the car. Instead of listening to the radio I would take the time to be present with the driving experience. There are countless opportunities throughout the day to practice presence. One of the best is to put away your laptop, phone, or tablet whenever someone approaches you for a conversation.
Presence takes awareness
Presence requires making a change. One of the ways our brain resists changing a habit is to ignore any information that supports making that change. As a result, we may often be unaware of our lack of presence. I find the best way to deal with this is to enlist help. I ask people whom I trust to let me know anytime they feel I am not being present. I find this is one piece of feedback others love to give me!
To influence change in someone, we must connect. To connect with another, we must first be connected with ourselves; this connection requires Presence.
Bill Gager is a consultant, coach, and speaker who helps organizations and individuals to communicate to influence the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of others. http://gager360.com