Mind Matters — “Presence,” Part I

Perhaps you have seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing, which has empowered the lives of millions. Where that presentation is one glimmering nugget of her research, her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, is a goldmine (and one without slave labor, I might add).

Weaving solid research from many disciplines with stories from her life and the lives of others, Amy Cuddy presents an enthusiastically engaging and deeply informative narrative on what it means to have “presence.”

Integrating the research of others before her, Cuddy notes psychologist William Kahn’s studies of presence in the workplace. He identified four determinants of presence in an individual as being attention, connection, integration, and focus. Simply put, presence is showing up being your “authentic best self!”

So when are we least present? Cuddy interviewed actor Julianne Moore and got an answer to this question. Moore believes that people feel least present when they don’t feel seen: “It’s impossible to be present when no one sees you. And it becomes a self-perpetuating process, because the more that people don’t acknowledge you, the more you feel you don’t exist. There’s no space for you. … Conversely, you are the most present when you are the most seen … and then people are always corroborating your sense of self.”

Invisibility, being unseen, evokes powerlessness. Powerlessness leads to withdrawal and the need to protect oneself. Moore notes, “If you’re protecting yourself against harm—emotional harm or humiliation—you can’t be present, because you’re too protected.”

The conclusion? That presence is about power, not domination and control of others but of being authentic to oneself. The ripple effect is that your presence can bring out the presence of those around you. Haven’t we all been in the presence of a singer or musician whose expansive presence has included us and we feel larger for the inclusion?

So how do we practice presence? Angeles Arrien, author of The Four-Fold Way, used to say we begin our authentic journey by “showing up.” You may not know what to do, or what the next step is but that is the start. It is saying, “Yes, I am here.”

How we “show up” has been researched by psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, as well as Amy Cuddy. First encounters have a universal pattern. Two instantaneous questions arise: Can I trust this person? Can I respect this person? The researchers define these dimensions as warmth (trust) and competence (respect). Quickly, we evaluate the stranger accordingly and prioritize warmth. Makes sense evolutionarily: if a person can’t be trusted, he could be dangerous. Ironically, however, we have the errant notion that when asked how we want to be seen by another, we say we want to be seen as competent (not warm and trustworthy!)

Research shows that competence without warmth doesn’t travel well: “The top characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive, bullying style.” Cuddy notes, “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong, elicits admiration; but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”

Presence also requires “shutting up.” That is, listening. Cuddy quotes William Ury, consummate negotiator and co-author of Getting to Yes: “When you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect.” In other words, or perhaps without words, rather than give advice, give attention—which is presence! The other person needs space and safety—and that means our being comfortable with silence.

If “presence” is one side of the coin, what is the other? Stayed tuned for “Presence, Part II” where impostorism, the other side of the coin, will be addressed. So will surfing, singing, slouching, self-nudging, and the power poses of presence! Till then, stand tall, don’t slouch!