Presence - PRESENCE IS A SKILL NOT A GIFT - Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett

Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)


Chapter 6. Presence

“Presence. That will definitely cost you more.”


At an executive leadership workshop I was offering at a large corporation, the company’s chief legal counsel stood up to make a few introductory remarks. She reported that while talking to a recruiter, she listed all the skills and areas of expertise she wanted in her next hire. At the end she listed presence as a vital quality she was expecting. “Well,” said the recruiter. “Presence. That will definitely cost you more.” Presence, that ineffable thing, is itself a commodity. But what exactly is it?

My client, Thea, had been with her company for decades. Her company had grown from a few hundred employees when she started to over 40,000 worldwide. She came to see me because she was transitioning from a role where she had literally hundreds of dotted line reports and over 20 direct to a position where she had zero. For her new role, she had to travel the world and meet with CEOs and high government officials as an emissary and champion of her organization. The role was both an honor and an imposition; she wasn’t looking forward to it. “In the past, at least I had the carrot and the stick as a way to influence and engage the troops. Now what have I got?”

The first thing I noticed about Thea was how exhausted she looked. Her voice was thin and scratchy, her face aloof, her posture weak. As she sat in my office, her right arm rested on her right leg, and her left arm was crossed over her whole body to rest on the right arm of her chair. She was curled up like a pretzel and stayed like that, crossed and covering the center of her body, for a full 45 minutes. There she sat, twisted up, her energy dull and tired, her voice a droning monotone. “I’m not ready to retire, but I know this position has characteristically meant the end of the game.”

I listened to her words, the doubt, and the worry, but mostly I observed her body. Near the end of our first meeting, I asked if she might consider moving her left arm so that it rested on the left armrest, rather than on the one all the way across her body.

“What difference would that make?” she snapped.

I suggested that by keeping herself all curled up, she looked tired, disengaged, and defensive, and that by opening up her chest region and sitting up, she might appear and actually feel a bit more engaged. She might begin to breathe more deeply as well. She fought me tooth and nail. “All this new age stuff about the body and breathing and empathy. I don’t buy a bit of it.”

“No need,” I countered. “All I’m asking is if you’d move your arm.” Reluctantly, she did so. Her homework? To be more aware in the moment of her posture, breathing, and movements and to observe if there was any correlation between how she moved and how she felt, how she moved and how others reacted. My last request was for her not to sit all curled up and immobile but to open her chest region and move her arms.

“Well, that’s the most patently absurd request I’ve ever had.”

“Ignore it then,” I replied. “It’s your money!”

“Company’s money,” she tossed back.

“Fantastic. No worries! It’s just merely your time then.”

“This way I sit, it is part of my style, almost my brand, I would argue.”

“Fine, so be it. But your brand is looking quite out-of-date and tired, and for this new role, if you really don’t want this to be an exit position, I suggest it’s time for a refresh.”

Two weeks later Thea returned.

“All right,” she began. “I’m going to give you just a tiny amount of credit.” She paused. I waited. “As you recommended, I began to move my arms.” Another pause. “My husband and daughters made great hash of me, told me I look like a complete phony, waving them about.” Pause. “But the funny thing is … and what I can’t seem to wrap my head around is … I’m having new ideas.”

“It’s one system, Thea. We must move beyond the Cartesian model of the mind-body split. Indeed, most contemporary neuroscience put that to rest decades ago.”

“But ideas generated from movement?”

“New patterns of movement. It’s all about breaking old habits and creating new pathways. What are some of those ideas, by the way, if you’re willing to share?”

We got into a rather lengthy discussion about time and influence and navigating the present, which led me to tell Thea about the being in the now and my observations of its effects. Again she pushed back with her grave mistrust of anything “new age.” “But I like you, Gina, so I’ll listen. More than that, I can’t promise.”

Likability, trust, patience—these are the turnkeys that slowly permit one to push the envelope.

“Well then, let’s try an experiment,” I countered. “What is the script you use when you go to these meetings with CEOs and government officials around the world?”

“It’s a pitch essentially. I’ve got my 10 minutes of prewritten talking points. I speak it and get the heck out of there as soon as possible.”

“Do you feel engaged while doing so?” She laughed at the very idea. “Do you ever let the script go and just go with your gut and let the meeting just happen not according to script?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Why not?”

“That’s not the job. The job is to get into the room, do my bit, exchange cards, and call it a day.”

“No wonder it’s an exit position.”

“Well, what are you suggesting I do?”

“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just asking if what you are doing suits not only the job, but the moment. The unique moment that you have with each encounter. To me, what you’re describing sounds as pointless as insisting on driving straight on a road that’s full of curves. You have to adjust your style according to what each encounter demands.”

There was a long silence. Thea looked quite lost. Finally, she said, “I don’t follow. I follow the bit about the road, but that’s not really analogous, is it?”

“Isn’t it?” I then told Thea about the Rule of the Yes from improvisation.


When actors improvise, they often do so with no props. Everything is conjured in the immediate moment, invisibly. In an improvisation, no one knows what is coming next. When one actor holds out an invisible something to the other, that second actor will probably already have a flicker of something in mind, because it’s quite scary to stand onstage before an audience and not have any idea of what is going to happen. The mind instinctively conjures up ideas. Suddenly the first actor says, “Here’s a lovely birthday cake I made for you.” And the second actor, the respondent, who might have been expecting an imaginary set of keys or a cell phone, must instantaneously adjust and let that first imagined thought go. Why? Because the first law of improvisation is to never deny another’s established reality. If actor number two were to reply, “There’s no cake in your hands,” the improvisation, like a popped balloon, would instantly deflate into meaninglessness. What the Rule of the Yes does is immediately create a common ground upon which the actors can walk, moment by unexpected moment, constantly remaking the reality by adding on to and accepting each other’s unfolding imaginary world.

Why might any professional benefit from this rule? The simple fact is that every encounter, every sales call, every negotiation is an improvisation. No one knows going in how it will end. Those who are present must constantly reset their expectations, recalibrate to suit the exigencies of the moment. How often after a meeting has gone south did you in hindsight realize, “Damn! That moment when he looked at his watch and put his hands on the conference table as if to say, ‘This is over,’ and I kept talking and talking. That’s when I blew it.” (That’s providing you do a postmortem. Do you? If not, I highly recommend regularly doing so.)

The biggest difference between actors and nonactors is that the former spend years in training to unlearn the blocks that jam up the flow. That’s how they develop presence. That commodity. Successful salespeople learn this over time, or somehow instinctively know it, but the conscious development of this skill as a key component of presence itself is rarely taught. (I once worked with someone who’d spent a few years in the CIA. One of the earliest trainings he had to take covered how to become invisible, to not have any presence, to be someone no one would ever remember meeting. Now he was a tall, charming, very handsome young man, and he had to transform himself into someone no one would ever recall. He was proof of point if one can learn how to become invisible, one can certainly learn and master its opposite!)

Back to Thea. She listened and acknowledged that in theory she could understand the value of the Rule of the Yes for theater, but in real life it was not applicable. In the kinds of meetings she had, meetings that sometimes took months to arrange, there were expectations that had to be met. She couldn’t simply ignore the objectives and go with the flow; it would be foolish, risky, and unproductive.

Convincing individuals of something about which they have strong objections is not my goal. Rather, I attempt to introduce a different way of looking at a problem. In that spirit, I suggested to Thea that her point of view about the meetings was counterproductive and her behavior during them was creating missed opportunities time and again.

“Missed how?”

“Missed because you are not there. You are a mouthpiece, spouting predetermined, prewritten text. They might as well just send a robot! By not allowing yourself to go with whatever the opportunity presents, you are essentially obeying the rule of the no.” She looked at me for a long time but said nothing.

Many think presence is a kind of innate charisma, a quickness, a glow, a vitality, and either you’ve got it or you don’t; you’re born with it or you’re not. When asked to define it, words like confidence, aura, and energy top the list. Digging deeper to understand how those qualities are made manifest, such things as posture and eye contact are suggested. Indeed, all the physical aspects discussed in Part I are the building blocks of presence. But then there is this question of the present moment itself, the constantly changing, never static isness of multilayered reality. I recall reading that according to Buddhist thought, at any given moment, we have 3,000 possible reactions. Second by unfolding second, 3,000 options! I’ve no idea how that particular number was arrived at, and who knows, maybe it’s 300,000 or 3 million options. The point is, moment by moment, we live at the edge of time, and the possibilities for how we choose to react are infinite. That is the most crucial aspect of presence, one’s flexibility with and effortless management of an ever-changing now. The ability to navigate the present moment is not an innate secret gift or mystery. As someone who’s spent years teaching actors how to attain presence, I know with absolute certainty that it is a teachable skill. Presence is the result of a series of actions. It is the situational alignment of how one moves, speaks, thinks, listens in the present moment combined with the undoing of blocks that keep us removed from our impulses.

Thea returned a few weeks later from a trip to Asia where she’d gone to meet a head of state. The flight from New York was almost 24 hours long; the assumption had been that the meeting would last a mere 15 minutes and she’d be back on a plane later that day.

“I have a gift for you,” she said. I looked around for a nicely wrapped box but saw none.

“You shouldn’t have.”

“The man I was supposed to meet kept me waiting for over an hour. When I entered his office, he was in a fit about some deal that had gone bad. He literally was ranting and raving. I sat there, none too pleased myself, let me tell you, what with the long flight, the long wait, and now his outrageous performance. I thought of you and what you said about forgetting the script and going with whatever was happening. Ordinarily I would have just politely waited, done my bit, and left; but since all else was so off kilter I decided to ‘go with the moment.’ I was tired of putting up with his behavior, so I just blurted out ‘It’s a fucking crying shame, isn’t it?’ He stopped. It was as though he just realized I was in the room. I held my breath because I had no idea if he’d get even more angry, but by then I really didn’t give a damn. Instead, he laughed. Somehow, my going with my impulse, as you would call it, made him laugh. It was as though he realized how absurd his behavior had been. We talked for the next hour and a half. It was amazing! We’re doing business.”

“’Cause you were real. You were present.”

“I guess.”

“Thanks for the gift. I’ll treasure it.”

The transformation of Thea was akin to watching a withered plant in desperate need of water slowly coming back into green vibrance. What was most wonderful about our time working together was, despite our almost universal disagreement about most things—political, intellectual, societal—we connected experientially. We were able to completely bypass the usual barriers to trust and engage fully in the moment together. I attribute this in no small part to my lifetime practice of doing the “flow.”


“The Flow” is an exercise that asks the practitioner to speak aloud the stream of thoughts, whether flowing or clogged, running through his or her mind as he or she performs any simple but focused task. It’s quite unnerving and extremely difficult because that stream, which goes on continually inside each of us, is quieted very early in our development by socialization: parents, school, life. Indeed, those who don’t repress the wild ride inside and speak it aloud are considered mad.

For decades I taught the flow to my acting students and patiently observed as they attempted to dip into the rushing river of their thoughts. The flow puts one into that constant stream and asks that he or she say out loud all that pops up in front of an audience. In their first attempts most actors would say one or two very obvious and superficial things, such as “I’m standing here.” And then they would become quiet for a very long time. Everyone’s quiet place is unique, as it relates to the specific taboos that were imposed from very early on. But eventually, when feeling safer, something true would pop out. Similar to a dam under tremendous pressure breaking open, words would just pour out. Thoughts, images, sensations, feelings, fears, hopes, jokes, whatever was zooming about inside the head would be liberated. The transition from long silences to uncensored thoughts being spoken could be sudden or painstaking. It all depended upon the person. But once liberated, it would become an unstoppable force. Universally, the response from both speaker and observer was the same. Irrespective of culture, politics, gender, race, age, religion, ethnicity, talent, when the speaker finally tapped into his or her uncensored thoughts and let the truth flow, it was a revelation. Every person in the room would be riveted. Spellbound. For decades I got to experience over and over the absolute magic and power of revealed truth. What an honor and gift it was to help each person’s truth emerge. I had students from every walk of life, every shade of skin, every social and economic class, every sexual orientation. I had students from the Caribbean; Latin America; Asia; Europe; north, south, urban, and rural United States; and Canada. None of those identifiers mattered a hoot when the actor rode the flow. Every time the audience would be breathless, silent, enraptured. Why? Because truth revealed, no matter how messy and uncomfortable, no matter how distant from the audience’s own experience or point of view, is captivating. The muscle and courage it takes to break open that dam of self and reveal it captures the human heart utterly. We cannot look away. Quite the opposite, it compels our attention.

In what way can an exercise like the flow have meaning for people in business who would never be asked to perform such a task? How can those who do not need or want to open up their endless stream of inner chatter to the outside world apply the lessons of the flow? Why would they? In reality, one needs merely to hear it internally and acknowledge it, not necessarily speak it out loud. But the process of actually speaking it has tremendous impact. Why? Because what the exercise does is open up what one prefers to hide and expose it to the light. Why would anyone be crazy enough do this? For the simple reason that the pressure to bury one’s true self is much more depleting than bringing it out into the open. We all have our personal places of embarrassment or shame that we spend vast amounts of time trying to conceal. But once exposed, they’re usually not such a big deal at all! Actors need to do this for the simple reason that it permits them to discover their unique impulses, for it is precisely the specificity of each actor’s impulses that differentiates how he or she interprets a role.

Going back to earlier in this book, think of all the examples of ways people attempted to physically hide something about which they were self-conscious or ashamed and how that impacted their communication: mumbled, inaudible speech to hide insecurity about one’s knowledge or skill set, hands that hide a weak chin, crunching down to hide one’s height. None of these are that far off from other attempts to hide deeper aspects of one’s “shameful” self. Trustworthiness, connection, and the success of ensuing business relationships can often be directly linked to how comfortable and accepting of yourself you are.

While presenting, when meeting a new client, when speaking up before senior management, the courage to go off script, to freely associate to a new idea, to speak a thought that suddenly occurs, all depend on your ability to access those unexpected associations and ideas, to have sufficient “presence of mind” to decide whether or not to verbalize the unexpected. When in a meeting, how confidently someone leaps into the fray, offers ideas, counters group-think—all these actions derive from managing the inner flow.


Sit in a comfortable chair and begin by just noticing what your five senses are taking in around you. After a few moments of silent observation, begin to say out loud first what you see around you. Then jump to what you hear. Full sentences are not needed, just words or phrases that capture what’s present. Go to smell, and if there is a smell, describe it briefly. Just a few words. Touch with your hand the surface of the seat you’re sitting on and describe it, again briefly. Bring your attention to your mouth; do you taste anything? Go sense by sense and then circle back to sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. After a round or two, allow whatever sense is most attuned in the moment to tell you what to say or briefly focus on. Try this for three minutes or so. Notice when or if you become silent. If that happens, just go back to one of the senses and say out loud what it notices.


After noticing and speaking what the five senses are observing, notice how your body feels. It may be something as simple as observing how you’re sitting, if your foot fell asleep, or if your arm itches. Just say aloud whatever physical sensations you notice.


Carrying forward and building upon the first two steps, now notice if the mind goes elsewhere, a memory, an association, a fear, a wish, a desire—whatever pops up, permit yourself to speak it. Again, full sentences aren’t necessary. A name, a word, anything that captures the fleeting thought before it morphs into the next is enough. If you become silent, when you notice it, go back to a sense and just begin to speak out loud what that sense is observing. The goal is to notice and ride the endless stream of thought out loud.

I’ve spent decades not only teaching the exercise but doing it myself. What I’ve discovered is that even if just one person in a pair is awake to the inner stream of impressions, associations, memories, and fears, that capacity somehow, mysteriously, almost magically unlocks it in the other. The combined practices of “Soft Belly” (Chapter 3), “The Flow” (variations above), and “Elephant Ears” (Chapter 1), which all of us can do any time, enable connection irrespective of opinion. One’s ability and comfort with jumping fully into the moment, not knowing or having an agenda but following the flow of thoughts and impressions, daring to speak the difficult with compassion and humor, evoke similar behavior from those with whom one is relating. I want to emphasize again that these are not special talents. All of us have the ability to be present, to risk, to intuit, and to be fully awake to what the moment offers. It is the process of discovering the filters that prevent such engagement that requires attention, focus, and practice. Presence is the courage to dive into the moment before you, to live on the razor-edge of time.

Thea dared to speak up to the man in Asia because she’d experienced several months of being in the now with me. She experienced that she’d not only survived but thrived. She was willing to bring that newfound trust in her own ability to be in the present into another circumstance, thereby bringing along a complete stranger into that present moment. Whether you are a CEO in Germany, a financial analyst in Australia, or a kindergarten teacher in Savannah, what enables you to get what’s in your brain into the brains of your audience, while completely idiosyncratic, is totally universal. Both are rooted in the truth of the present moment, just like the flow. What dams up the flow and keeps us removed from that present is fear of failure or the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of and feel we need to hide.


At a Broadway show I was attending, the set was a kitchen, with a high shelf that went along the walls and had vases and baskets all along it. Upon an actor’s entrance, a vase fell off the shelf and went rolling on the floor. The actor did nothing. He froze. The audience watched the vase rolling … and rolling … and rolling … because, sadly, that became the most truthful moment on stage. Meanwhile the play stopped dead in its tracks. Finally, after several seconds, another actor walked over, picked up the vase, and placed it on a table, just as one would in real life! Like a key turned in an ignition, the play started up again. (Not surprisingly, that’s all I recall of the entire production.) One might characterize the vase falling as a failure, as it broke the illusion. But the vase falling was not the problem; these things happen. It was the actor’s inability to deal with it that was the tipping point.

How to embed presence and moment-to-moment flow when giving a presentation will be covered in greater depth in the following chapter on design, but a key take-away is to never attempt to ignore or hide any slip-up or technical glitch. Audiences are very smart; they will catch these things. Remember, they are on your side. Acknowledge, use, breathe through any mishap, and you will instantly gain an audience’s trust as someone who has enough leadership presence to handle the unexpected.

In general, almost all of us will do anything to avoid failure. But it is also our opinion about what constitutes failure that needs constant revision. I’ve had many experiences in the theater, as both audience member and performer, where a mess-up not only more deeply engaged the audience but opened up new possibilities for how to improve a scene. There’s an expression in the theater called “use it,” meaning embrace whatever mess-up happens, incorporate it rather than avoid it or pretend it didn’t occur. When you try to avoid or hide mistakes, all truth goes out the window, and the bond between audience and actor is broken. This echoes my previous statement regarding practice making imperfection livable. In the workplace, one’s credibility and trustworthiness become suspect by any attempt to cover up one’s mistakes.

When I was teaching acting, I had my students write on the covers of their notebooks, “Dare to fail.” That was the mantra. Dare to fail: big, publicly, and to do it again and again. The expression “You don’t need courage in a field of daisies” acknowledges the truth that it is through hardship and failure that we grow skills, muscle, and resolve. But to actively embrace failure as a mode of learning is in direct opposition to almost all education, especially in our early and very character-forming years. Younger students are not encouraged to fail; rather, in test after test after test, they are taught to avoid failure at all costs. Mistakes become anathema, humiliating, things to hide or cover up. And yet every scientist knows that failure is the key to discovery. Every athlete knows that a lost game or race is an opportunity to further refine technique. Every actor knows that failure is almost always the result of playing “at” the role, rather than “living” inside it, being stuck in one’s head rather than jumping with both feet into an impulse. Even if that impulse turns out not to be the proper choice, for any number of reasons, more is discovered by failing than by playing it safe. What can business learn from this, and how can other professionals change their points of view and even definitions of failure?

After years of acting and teaching, I felt the need to stretch my skills, so I took a clown workshop. I had no desire to become a clown, but I wanted to understand and experience something out of my comfort zone. The workshop was taught by a gifted actress and director who had studied in France at the famous Jacques Lecoq school. The students were professional actors who, like me, wished to explore another approach to performance and gain new techniques. The workshop was not about juggling or making silly pratfalls on banana peels; it was about creating what’s called a personal clown, a character-driven entity more like a Charlie Chaplin than a red-nosed circus clown (although we did wear red noses for a while, which was a wonderful surprise, an automatic entry into another reality!).

For the first exercise, each of us was told to get onstage one by one and make the class of 25 strangers laugh. While sitting in the audience, we’d watch as our classmates would do practically anything to evoke laughter; we’d imagine our own schemes, certain that we would be the one to draw howls of laughter. Not a single one of us was able to make the audience even snicker. Dead silence greeted every effort. We all failed miserably, and we all got to watch each other fail miserably. If the teacher had told us ahead of time that that was the point of the exercise, most might have quit the class on the spot. She saved that insight until all 25 of us had had the experience—and survived it.

What was the point of that exercise? The essence of character clown, as she then explained, is that you will do positively anything for love and acceptance. Anything. That the feelings of terror, failure, loneliness, vulnerability that each of us so acutely experienced were the seeds from which our personal “character” clown would germinate. Once she explained the soul around which we would build our characters, failure was embraced. Over and over, in task after task, failure actually became the goal. Instead of something utterly humiliating and to be avoided at all costs, we all strove to completely mess up. What a revelation! What freedom emerged. Add a red nose and a costume to that state of pure need, and every clown became irresistible and unimaginably funny.

What relevance has this to professionals where failure is neither an option nor something to pursue? A lot.


Think back to something you did long ago that you consider to have been a professional failure. Write down precisely what made it a failure. Was it your skill level at the time, your emotional immaturity, circumstances beyond your control?


What were the personal, financial, professional outcomes of that failure? Write them down. Now leap ahead in time mentally and ask yourself what were the long-term effects and learnings that were engendered by that failure? In general, not always but usually upon review, people realize that the failure, so painful or humiliating at the time it happened, resulted in positive outcomes over time. Something completely unexpected was learned. Or due to a prior failure, a similar mistake was avoided. We grow from failure. Plain and simple. Over and over, our lives are the accumulation of random inexplicable events for which we have little or no experience except our previous failures!


Now take a more recent event that you feel was far from successful and ask yourself what might be the outcome a month, six months, or a year from now. Imagine failure not as something to avoid or feel ashamed about but as an opening to possibility.


In any profession, ownership of one’s mistakes is vital. Increasingly, people pass the blame rather than own up to their faulty judgments. Those who say, “I did it, I messed up, I’m sorry, and I’ll do whatever possible to fix it,” seem to be the exception. (Or conversely, apologizing comes too easily. “I’m sorry” is said, but that’s the end of it. No solution is offered regarding how to clean up the mess.) These days, whether in politics or boardrooms, the virus of passing the buck and actively refusing to take responsibility for one’s mistakes is emblematic of infantilism run rampant. That’s what three-year-olds do! “He made me do it” is a cry every parent or preschool teacher has heard innumerable times. How different is that from “My admin messed up,” “My colleague didn’t get me the files on time,” or “My computer crashed”? Own your mistakes, admit to them, and communicate possible solutions! If you do so, you will only increase your leadership presence and gain more respect from your colleagues. These are such basic rules of the social contract, it is stunning that they even need to be stated. But I am continually amazed by how quickly people are willing to pass the blame rather than own up to their own mistakes.

Failure is obviously something most wish to avoid. But for many, success is even scarier. Many people are more comfortable with the self-limiting results of old habits. For them, the risks that full engagement with the present can unleash are just too much. Why might that be? With success comes increased responsibility and visibility, as well as greater exposure to risk and unpredictable unknowns. There’s a Dutch saying, “The tall trees get the wind.” In essence it means, with increased responsibility comes greater vulnerability to the unexpected. Navigating the unexpected requires flexibility and courage. For some, it is easier to stay within a narrower range of risk, visibility, and responsibility. What’s most critical is to know your own tolerance for stress and exposure. Not everyone has to be a tall tree! But it is vital to determine if it is fear of failure or fear of success that hobbles risk taking. Whether of failure or success, you can be certain fear will impact how you communicate in high-stakes and day-to-day exchanges.


Write down an aspiration that you hold dear: getting that promotion you desire or that project you want to work on. Now list all the possible pitfalls that might occur as a result of achieving that aspiration. Next write down all the advantages or opportunities that may come of it. Read both lists and ask yourself (and notice what your belly feels) if you are more unnerved by the list of risks or opportunities.

All of us have people from our personal and professional lives whom we look up to and admire. They may not even be people we know. They can be a great person from history, politics, sports, the arts, or just a close relative. Often someone is admired because he or she manifests one’s own aspirations and values. From one’s perspective, those heroes lived their values fully and boldly. For those who worry about failing, presenting, or even communicating in general, it can be a great exercise to imagine their hero and communicate to him or her in a safe, imaginary context.


When there is a difficult decision to be made, write your hero a letter asking for his or her thoughts and opinions. Let the letter fully express your ideas and concerns. Following that exercise—and here’s the fun part—have your hero write you back with his or her ideas. This exercise is a wonderful way to access a part of the self that is nascent and wants to emerge. Also, I recommend doing this exercise with a pen and paper and not on a computer. There is something inexplicably personal about using the hand in that way that feels wonderful, slow, and true.


If you are wrestling with a challenge or are very nervous about an upcoming business deal, or risk, or presentation, close your eyes and imagine your hero. Hear his or her voice; imagine how he or she walks, gestures, and moves. After a few moments, still with your eyes closed, come to a standing position and imagine you are your hero. Open your eyes and slowly move about the room; look around; embody the hero’s pace, style, posture, gestures, and presence. Begin to speak the presentation, business idea, or risk aloud, as though you are your hero. Explore how the imaginary embodiment makes you feel. When attempting to garner new ideas or support for an upcoming challenge, observe if by moving like your hero, different thoughts and solutions bubble up from this imaginary embodiment. If nothing pops up, that’s fine. If nothing else, it’s just fun to pretend!

The mind is a rich tapestry of impulses, sensations, thoughts, reactions, memories, associations, perceptions, all in constant flux and flow. For many, stream of consciousness feels less like a stream and more like a congested road full of random vehicles going in opposite directions. Intrusive, disruptive, negative thoughts can seemingly pop up out of nowhere. Habitual, negative self-dialogue can overwhelm purposeful concentration. Worry, rumination, obsessive thoughts, random associations, the list goes on and on. Psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and the clergy all attempt to unravel these mysteries from their own perspectives. Regarding communication, it is amazing how those types of thoughts can creep into physical gestures and verbal exchanges. Understanding how thoughts might be focused to impact one’s ability to navigate the present moment is still in its infancy. I have no concrete answers, only experiences that have helped me to explore how the mind and imagination, in concert with the body, can be used to break through the blocks that keep us stuck and hinder impactful connection and communication. Do you make a self-sabotaging facial expression or gesture after expressing an idea? Do you sigh loudly to express displeasure? Do you laugh or giggle after expressing an opinion? Do you not communicate an idea because you second-guess yourself? (Some of my clients often report that they are so busy judging what they want to contribute in meetings that by the time they’re ready to speak, the subject has changed and conversation has moved on.) Keep in mind that just as you are constantly adding new data points about those with whom you work, they are doing so about you. Presence is an evolving conception in others’ experiences of you, as well as your own self-conception. Presence is not fixed. We are all works in progress. Communication is constant, and being completely present in the moment is available to all of us. But like everything else, mastery requires practice.

Chapter 6: Presence

Review Exercises

✵ The Flow: A Toe in the Stream—hearing oneself

✵ The Flow: Body Now—physical presence

✵ The Flow: Mind Now—thought presence

✵ The Seed of Failure—self review

✵ What Did Failure Grow?—outcomes of past actions

✵ Failure’s Offspring—awareness of unexpected outcomes

✵ What If … ?—imagination

✵ Write Your Hero a Letter—access your inner smarts, courage

✵ Be Your Hero—exactly!