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Tips for increasing your presence

In leadership coaching, the word ‘presence’ comes up a lot. More often than not, it’s a development goal for a leader. Sometimes it’s used to describe an outstanding leader. When you think of presence in leaders, what comes to mind? Maybe you think about confidence, charisma, body language, something about the way a leader speaks to others. From a mindfulness perspective, presence is about intentionally having your attention fully in the moment, moment to moment, and not being distracted by other things going on in that moment, internally or externally.


Mary Beth O’Neill (2007), a master leadership coach and consultant, has written on the importance of presence, for both leaders and coaches. Here are some of my key take-aways. First, what is presence? O’Neill says presence rises when we bring our values, passion, creativity, emotion, and discerning judgment to the moment. Leaders with presence turn into their challenges and face them directly. They don’t turn away in the face of resistance. We build a presence when we inhabit our role in ways that no one else does.

On the other hand, we can also lose our presence in a variety of ways, like when intense emotions arise, when we react without thinking and habits take over, and when overwhelm, and fear arises in us. We lose presence when we get impatient and demanding, or endlessly seek more information when facing competing factions. We also lose presence when we give up on our agenda when challenged or start vacillating between being a rigid dictator and an overly relaxed observer.


It’s important to know that we absolutely can develop presence, but it takes work, mind work. Here are four ways O’Neill offers to help clients keep and build their presence.

1) Know your goals when entering into a situation/event


When things get tough and confusing, remembering the goal in that moment can help pull you out of confusion into more clarity.


2) Learn how to handle ambiguity


Acknowledge it. Know where you are clear and not clear. State what you want to do. Tell others what you need from them. Ask what they need from you.


3) Increase your tolerance for reactivity in yourself (and others).


Know your triggers and associated reactions to them. Learn to choose an alternative response when you are triggered. With your goal in mind, apply “beginners mind” to a situation. Ease off a bit of the pressure and give yourself some space to see more clearly and learn. Get more exposure to the type of situations you react to and inoculate yourself.


4) Bring immediacy into each moment


Focus on the here and now, not there and then (past and future). When you have reactions, articulate them real-time. Learn to recognize the signs of being on auto-pilot or distracted so you can bring yourself back to the present moment. Speaking directly from your own experience of someone in the current situation will also bring immediacy.


To O’Neill’s four ways, I offer a fifth way to increase others’ perception of presence in you - mindfulness, a form of inner work with intention, attention, and awareness that can eventually lead to personal transformation in a variety of ways that organizations and leaders care about. For example, improved focus, perspective taking, decision making, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, objectivity, and less reactivity and overwhelm). That’s quite a claim, yes?! It’s a claim backed by a growing body of neuroscience studies (almost 7,000 studies to date). Additionally, an increasing number of companies like Google, Intel, Target, and Aetna are discovering its benefits and investing in mindfulness training for their leaders and employees. Who wouldn’t want to invest in something that leads to upgrades in our human operating system!


5) Train in mindfulness


Use basic breathing and concentration practices to rest the body, release stress, get more grounded, and increase your presence. Since these techniques are portable, you can apply them at any point during the day (or evening). Use open monitoring to recognize negative emotions and triggers and catch them early, before they get too strong to work with productively. With practice, you’ll be more able to catch reactions sooner and act/make decisions from a wiser, less reactive self even amid activity and chaos.


Additionally, mindfulness can be used to strengthen each of the four practices O’Neill describes. For example, over time, mindfulness will increase your tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to work with it. Since you’ll be more present and observing more, you’ll be better equipped to bring immediacy into each moment.


Increasing presence is a valuable pursuit for leaders, for all of us. With a little education and effort as noted above, we can equip ourselves to stand more firmly in our own presence, especially in more difficult situations. All of us can develop our innate presence. It’s always already right here in us. We just need to learn how to remove the veils that obscure it. I think you’ll find it worth the effort, because when we learn to exercise our presence muscle, we more fully inhabit an innate human capability that leads to our becoming more fully human. Now, how’s that for a desirable outcome!


Stephen Presley, PhD

Better leadership through mindfulness practices for MANAGERS, INFORMAL LEADERS, and TECHNICAL EXPERTS


Email: stephen@upgradingleaders.com

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