As someone who has grown up professionally in the sales, marketing, and general management world of the service industry, I deal in conversations. I spend most of my working time having all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people. In fact, I often say that I get paid based on how many quality conversations I’ve had in a day. Effective communication has become the most essential ingredient of my success. And so, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort figuring out all the ways I can communicate more effectively.
My search for that “secret sauce” of authentic connection and leadership inevitably leads me to the elusive concept of presence. Over the years, I’ve continued to examine how to become a more effective and compelling communicator through what I like to think of as the paradigm of presence. It’s a framework we can all create for how we connect with our colleagues, our clients, our families and friends, and even our adversaries.
Being present in any and all conversations is a tall order. Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies to get the most out of my dialogues and truly connect with the people I encounter. Some of the strategies have been simple fixes, like how I always face the wall when I have a meeting in a restaurant or crowded place, to ensure that I can focus on the conversation (I’m prone to distraction). Or they can be more complex strategies that took much more time, patience, and intention to develop. Like when I finally let go of my instinct to ask direct, probing questions (my way of trying to control the outcome of a conversation) and asked more open-ended questions. These strategies are all part of a practice I like to call intentional presence. Intentional presence is the process of looking within to find tools and strategies that will allow you to fully be present in relationships with others—opening up a more trusting, natural, and authentic line of communication.
A Paradigm of Presence
The one thing about intentional presence: It requires a new paradigm. That takes preparation, discipline and practice. We can all think of people that transact relationships: They go through the mechanics, and they may be very good at it, but they stop at a certain level. They just can’t go any further, and at times life’s circumstances expose that. (I continue to work on that as well!) I have the tendency to communicate like a triage nurse. I used to have a set of about 10 questions I’d ask my colleagues whose answers would tell me where I should send the problem next⇁up the chain of command, so to speak. That works very well in an ER, but on a team with a group of collaborative minds working together toward a common goal? Not so much. And forget about innovation. Mechanical, triage conversations basically stop innovation in its tracks.
But sometimes we have everyday conversations where the mechanical, triage-nurse approach is what comes naturally. Think: “How was your weekend?” “Did you have a nice vacation?” “How about the Patriots?” What more do we need? On a dreary Monday morning, maybe not much. But when there’s a challenge like an unsatisfied customer, transactional conversations just won’t cut it.
A story about presence …
When I was a young boy, I lived in a remote area overseas. One night as I played with friends, I had a terrible accident. My memory gets fuzzy from that point on, but due to a lack of ambulance service, I remember my dad holding me in his arms as someone else drove to the only medical center. I remember my dad drenched in blood as we arrived, then I remember very little until I woke up at home, all stitched and bandaged. I had suffered from multiple wounds that extended from my forehead down to my legs. To this day I still have scars from the incident, but I shouldn’t still have scars. And that’s why I’m telling you this story…
When we went in for a follow-up visit, the doctor on call took a close look at my injuries and said some of the scarring will be there forever because the wounds weren’t stitched right. The staff had recently realized that one of their doctors was a fraud. That’s right, the person who treated me when I came in with my injuries was actually not really a doctor. He had falsified his paperwork and gotten by performing well with less serious cases. But eventually, his lack of training was exposed. By examining my scars, the staff at the medical center saw more evidence that this person did not indeed have the proper medical training to be a doctor. The good news? I didn’t die. The bad news? Someone could have (and I have permanent scars to remind me of that).
Treat Every Conversation Like It Matters
This person got by for a long time posing as a doctor by transacting very mechanical cases. But the circumstances changed, and his weakness was exposed. The same exact type of thing happens when we communicate with our teams, customers, friends and family. We can get by for days, months⇁maybe quite possibly even years⇁just checking in and having these mechanical conversations. And while often times the impact isn’t physical, have no doubt that the emotional damage can be real!
Many times in the course of our daily lives we encounter opportunities to take one shot at something⇁only one. And if we are not intuitively prepared and ready to take advantage of that, we miss out on making an impact, sometimes forever. That’s where the permanent emotional or relational scars show up. It’s where you can miss out on a great business opportunity or partnership, too.
That opportunity could be about your peer at work realizing that he can overcome a challenging client situation because you were present as you helped him really work through the challenges of that relationship and his own misgivings, insecurities or fears. That opportunity could be your friend that’s fighting to keep his job, or getting the next promotion, and you took the time to offer the genuine advice you wished someone had given you. That opportunity could be your child who wants to try out for a play that they don’t think they can do, but you encourage them to go for it regardless of the outcome. That opportunity could be a spouse that struggles with being celebrated for their accomplishments, and you work through that together by being there to validate the struggle, and also honor an accomplishment—no matter how busy your day is.
A Fresh Framework ….This Is a Continual Process
Ask yourself these questions to get started on your intentional presence practice and find your framework of connection:
When someone comes to me with a problem, what’s my instinctive reaction? And Why?
- To solve the problem
- To lessen the importance of the problem
- To pass the buck
To be fully present in the next conversation or meeting, often on the fly, we have to become intentional around getting ourselves prepared to be present and all in. That requires a new framework of presence. My process for developing one looked like this:
- I went within myself and acknowledged what was holding me back from being present. That happened because I asked myself the question above over and over again, looking for the why.
- Once I understood the why, I asked myself how I could engage new situations differently, knowing what I now knew about myself.
- I made a mental image of what that new level of connection looked like. I rehearsed conversations in my head, focusing on ways to be fully present without my own baggage and impulses,like where I would sit in a situation, how I would respond and the questions that I should be asking, not that I wanted to ask.
That’s my framework, and it’s a continual process. What’s yours?