The Present of Presence
Put down your smartphone and get clear on what's important
I’m writing this from a break at the beach. One of the benefits of being self-employed is the ability to work from anywhere. What I love about being at the beach is its ability to get us out of our heads and back into our bodies. There’s nothing like diving under a wave, feeling the cool salt water on our face to ground us and bring us back to the present moment. The beach is overflowing with people right now but it is still breathtakingly beautiful. As I climb the hill to the national park every morning on my daily walk breathing in the fresh sea air, I am completely in the present. It’s a multi-sensory experience and I feel so grateful to be alive. There are no thoughts of the past and no concerns for the future. It is complete perfection in the here and now. In these moments, I feel deeply connected to the environment and the people who walk past me, and the depth of my conversations with strangers reflects this.
However, it’s interesting for me to observe the number of people still walking along the beach or sitting on the sand staring at smartphones. In the face of exceptional natural beauty, they are oblivious to everyone and everything, preferring instead to lose themselves in the pull of technology. It’s a scene I’ve seen many times over at airports and shopping centres all over the country but it seems more out of place in the face of so much natural beauty. With everyone staring at their screens, they’re certainly not present to their environment and there is no chance of connection with them. No wonder it sometimes seems like we are losing the ability to connect and many people are preferring to interact electronically than face to face.
I’m back to my normal life soon and my goal is to try and stay this present all the time despite all the conflicting demands on my time. I am as guilty as the next person of having moments when I appear to be present but my mind is elsewhere, solving a problem, overthinking an interaction, drafting an email in my head, or planning my tomorrow. I’m also guilty of being a slave to my smartphone. There are times when my family or my team want my undivided attention and they, like all of us, have an inbuilt radar that tells them when I’m not fully present and they feel it. It sends a message that they’re not as important to me as other demands. I’ve experienced that myself with others and it's soul destroying to be considered less interesting than a phone. The greatest gift we can give someone is our absolute and undivided presence.
Demonstrating presence is an important leadership skill and below are some effective strategies I’ve observed over the years to be better at ensuring I’m always present in the moments that matter:
Get clear on your priorities:
As with our family members, our teams’ also sense it when we are distracted, under the pump, and overwhelmed with deliverables. The most effective strategies to stay present will be different for all of us but for me, a good starting point is to get very clear on what’s important to me as a leader. I learnt this from a successful CEO who made it a priority to spend a third of his time on strategic matters, a third of his time on people development, and a third of his time in the market. He then set himself actions to deliver that, so when he found himself under pressure, he was able to stay true to his priorities. As leaders we are often dragged into what others want us to do, but we need to take charge and be clear on how we want to lead, communicate it to our people and then practice saying no to everything else that is not in our priorities. If successfully implemented, this process allows us to be fully present for the areas that matter to us.
2. Actively listen:
It’s not sufficient to merely tell ourselves to stay present. As Alan Watts wrote in the Wisdom of Insecurity. “To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking ‘I am listening to this music’, you are not listening. To be truly present we must be actively listening and in the other person’s moment, not our own. It’s not what we say or do, it’s how we make them feel with our undivided presence which tells them they’re important and they matter. Often we’re listening for the chance to jump in with our own experiences or advice, and that’s not active listening. In those moments when we are jumping in, it ceases to be about them and we have made it about us.
3. Reset yourself between interactions
It’s not easy maintaining presence in our busy lives. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen for how to ‘reset’ and enable presence comes from Dr Adam Fraser in his book “The Third Space”. Adam talks about using the ‘Third Space’ - that moment of transition between a first activity and the second that follows it - to mentally show up right for whatever comes next. Essentially the advice is to reset yourself between one meeting and the next, between one conversation and the next, or between a busy day at work and walking through the door at home. The way to do that is to take a few minutes of quiet time with some deep breathing to release the previous encounter and ensure you are back on track for your next interaction with a better frame of mind.
With loneliness and mental health issues on the rise, connection has never been more important than today and the gift of presence is critical to connection. So as I enjoy my last couple of days at the beach I’m embracing the feeling of being fully present. I’m having better conversations with my children, and I’m feeling more relaxed. The smartphone is on silent and I’m enjoying the beauty of nature all around me. This new sense of presence is helping others, but the most important person it is helping is myself. And a refreshed and relaxed version of me is going to have the most impact on others and a more successful 2019.
So as a leader, some questions for your to consider:
Are you clear on your leadership priorities? Have you set actions to ensure you achieve them? Are you clear on what you need to say no to?
How often do you fully listen, without judgement or interruption, without planning what you’ll say next?
Are you a slave to your smartphone? Do you turn it off in meetings?
How frequently do you reset yourself between interactions using the ‘Third Space’ concept?
 Watts, A. (2011). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an age of anxiety. New York: Vintage (Original work published in 1951)
 Fraser, A. (2012). The third space: Using life’s little transitions to find balance and happiness. Sydney: