Your presence matters - Michelle Gibbings

Two dandelions blowing in the wind on a blue background

If you’ve ever been in a meeting with someone and it’s clear they aren’t paying attention to you or the conversation, you’ll know it doesn’t feel good. You leave the interaction thinking, ‘Why did I bother? They are clearly not interested’.

Their lack of presence is apparent, as is the negative impact it can have on your feelings, thoughts and outcomes.

When I reflect on the great leaders I’ve worked with, one trait that set them apart was presence.

For those who had it, whether it was a casual conversation or a meeting, they were focused and deliberate. As a participant in the interaction, you left feeling seen and, most importantly, that you mattered to them.

In contrast, for those who didn’t have presence, you knew their attention was elsewhere. Sometimes, it was obvious. For example, looking at their mobile or taking a call while meeting with you. Other times, it was more subtle. They seemed distracted, disinterested and generally disconnected and unavailable.

For the leaders with presence, it seemed effortless. I don’t know whether they were born with it or whether it was a consciously cultivated skill. What I do know is that it matters. You know it when it’s there and when it’s not.

Core characteristics
Presence isn’t about charisma. It’s about demeanour and focus. It’s being fully engaged and invested in the moment, conveying a sense of purpose, authenticity, and connection.

It is not solely about how you look or sound but how you make others feel when interacting. This means you listen, engage, make eye contact, nod, and ask thoughtful questions. You demonstrate empathy and understanding and are genuinely interested in the person or people you are with.

It’s not about arrogance but a willingness to back yourself and take calculated risks. It’s holding steady and composed in the face of challenge and stress. It’s being willing to share your feelings without letting emotions over-run decision-making and perspective.

Why it matters
It’s easy to spot the leaders who have it. The former Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a perfect example. She was known for her quiet but commanding presence. Her calm and rational demeanour during multiple crises helped her steer European leaders.

Leaders with presence enable those around them to feel heard, valued and respected. They create an environment where others follow their lead, not out of obligation, but because they genuinely want to be a part of something.

When you’re present, you connect. The person you’re with walks away feeling they matter, and that helps to develop and solidify the relationship.

Similarly, when you’re present, you notice what is said and unsaid. You see the subtle shifts in relationships and group dynamics. You can sense what is landing or not landing when ideas are floated. These elements put you in a stronger position to influence and negotiate outcomes.

Having presence is also beneficial for your career.

Many years ago, I was chatting with a senior executive about a person in their team who had rapid career advancement, and I asked them what they saw as the distinguishing reason. Their response – ‘Presence’. They explained that the person always turned up prepared. They listened. Focused during all conversations and always observed and heard what was happening.

Barriers in the digital age
Presence, like all skills, is something that you can develop.

However, in a world full of distractions, it takes effort. The constant barrage of notifications, the lure of social media, and the demands of our increasingly digital lives make it harder to remain fully engaged in the moment. We can worry about missing out, and so constantly check devices, and we can be addicted to being ‘on’ and digitally connected.

There’s also research that our attention span is decreasing. According to one study, the average human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015. However, some experts argue that attention span is not a fixed trait that can be measured objectively but rather a complex and dynamic skill that depends on various factors, such as interest, motivation, context, and environment. Consequently, it may not be accurate to say that attention spans are getting shorter, but rather they are changing and adapting to different situations and demands.

Lastly, multi-tasking is a myth. Once heralded as a valuable skill, it’s clear that all multi-tasking does is divide our attention. It prevents us from fully engaging with the people and situations around us and results in the original task taking longer to complete.

Consciously cultivate
Yes, there are barriers, but none of them are insurmountable. Being present takes work, but it’s worth the effort.

So, where do you start? Like all good things, look inward first.

Focus within
Self-awareness is crucial. You need to know yourself because that allows you to focus on who you are and the type of leader you want to be. Once you know that, you can better target areas where you must adapt and shift your behaviour and approach.

As part of this discovery work, consider four crucial characteristics that help with presence: authenticity, adaptability, empathy and respect.

  • Embrace authenticity: authenticity not only enhances your presence but also builds trust. Don’t imitate someone else’s style or personality, but hold true to your values. Find your voice and be you. Share your stories, opinions and emotions in an appropriate and relevant way.
  • Be adaptable: be ready and willing to adjust to different situations and people. Don’t be rigid or resistant to change; instead, be flexible and open-minded.
  • Be empathetic: understand the feelings of others and seek to understand perspectives. Extend the hand of friendship and notice what people need. Create space for people to be seen and heard.
  • Be respectful: be considerate, courteous and interested in others. Notice, accept and recognise your needs and the needs of those around you.

Seek inner calm
It’s hard to be present when your mind is scattered.

Practices such as meditation and deep breathing are so important in this regard. If you want to stay calm under pressure, you must be able to notice the emotional trigger and have strategies at hand to deploy.

Regular meditation lays the groundwork for you to be more mindful. It will help you stay present in the moment and reduce distractions. It can also help you manage stress more effectively.

Use your breathing to centre your awareness, release tension and help you focus. For example, taking a deep breath and exhaling before making a phone call about a challenging topic can subconsciously relieve nerves.

Focusing on your mindset helps, too. Are you focusing on what you can do or concentrating on what you can’t do?

As part of this, reflect so you can refocus and recharge. Reflect on moments when you were most present and consider the factors contributing to that state. Use this insight to build new habits.

Focus externally
Once you’ve done the inner work, you are better placed to focus externally.

When you’re in a leadership position, you set the standard for presence and attentiveness in your team. Show your team the importance of being fully engaged and encourage them to do likewise. Create meeting policies that discourage device use and promote practices that enhance focus and engagement.

Presence creates connection.

So be thoughtful and focus your attention intentionally, whether during meetings, conference calls, one-on-one conversations, or even reading and answering emails. Consider all interactions as an opportunity to connect rather than a transaction or task to finish.

Prioritise connection, and when you are with someone, really be with them. Show that you are listening by nodding, smiling or asking questions. Avoid interrupting, judging or jumping to conclusions. Summarise what you heard and reflect back on what you understood.

Notice your communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal. Are you maintaining eye contact appropriately and using open body language? What messages are you displaying by your actions? Importantly, avoid habits that may distract or undermine your message, such as fidgeting, crossing your arms or looking away.

To help build your presence, set boundaries with your digital devices. When you are in meetings, put them on silent. Better yet, if you can, leave them outside the meeting room. Make an effort to single-task rather than multi-task. When in a meeting or a conversation, be fully present and avoid checking your phone or responding to emails.

Presence is a quality that can be cultivated. So, what first step will you take to elevate your presence at work?

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