Declaring a Year of Presence

There are one hundred people in this auditorium, but the way Paul looks directly at me, I’m the only person in the world.

His gaze never falters. No checking his watch, or looking over my shoulder to see who else is here. No glancing down at his phone.

We are in a bubble. We are connecting.

I notice this because it is so rare. It’s happening now because Paul is profoundly deaf.

To be sure, he’s reading my lips, so he needs to look at me. But this has the added advantage of creating connection, the kind no technology can ever replace.

The first time I had an experience of such intense focus I was only 21, but I’ve never forgotten it.

That was a tough summer for Cynthia, my boss at an ad agency. She was going through a divorce and some days she never even took off her sunglasses. But when I stepped into her office, the world went away. She had that gift of focused presence that made me feel like I was her only priority for the next hundred hours. Like Paul, she looked right at me, not at the pile of work on her desk or the people passing by in the hallway. In those few moments, her only focus was me.

I always thought this was a special type of charisma that certain people just had.

Take Dr. Murphy, a luminary physician, well-known in his field, holding a leading role at a top academic institution. When I arrived to coach him on presentation skills, another person arrived for a meeting at the same time. Rather than pass him off to an assistant, Dr. Murphy took the courtesy of five minutes to see that his other guest was settled in a nearby office. Then he completely focused on our conversation. We got through more in 45 minutes than others do in three hours.

Or there’s Jason. He looks like a surfer, but is CEO of a successful tech company. And he is tall — basketball-player tall. In fact, he is more than a foot taller than me. He could use his height to impose an advantage, but that’s not his style.

Jason spends little time making conversation in the standing position. After a warm handshake for each person on the team, he sits down so it’s easy to make eye contact.

This small but significant gesture makes us peers, even though we’re not. He’s the client. I’m the vendor. But human connection is where real leadership happens. He’s created a business with some of the lowest turnover in his industry.

Paying attention pays off.

So I’m declaring for myself a year of presence.

A year in which I hope to show up more than ever before, and really whittle away my addiction to the frenzy that makes me feel like a lot is happening, when actually very little is. A year in which I learn to look people in the eye, focus on one thing at a time, and do my best work yet.

A few things I’d like to explore:

  • How to be less self conscious, so I can be more focused on others.
  • How to have a mindful meeting, so it’s effective, efficient and enjoyable.
  • How to maximize productivity. I’m going to measure myself to see if I really do lose 25–40% of my productivity by multitasking.
  • How to listen better and talk less, or at the very least, try not to interrupt so much.
  • How to plan well, so I know that wherever I am and whatever I’m doing is where I’m supposed to be.

What I’ve learned so far is that anyone can be one of those magical people of presence, but most of us have to work at it. I definitely need to work at it.

Going, going, going is in my DNA. I’m a driver. Not a top-of-the-line driver, but still enough to create more frenzy than is healthy.

I cram everything I possibly can into every single second, which means I’m perpetually over scheduled and, if I’m lucky, just in time for meetings but often just a few minutes late. I get away with more than I deserve. And under it all is a persistent, subtle grind of anxiety that comes from squeezing too hard, sucking away energy and joy.

For the record, I won’t be giving up my technology. It’s what we do with the technology that matters.

Take Paul, for example — despite his deafness, technology has made it possible for him to use his natural talents as a storyteller, motivator and connector to become the leader that he is. Using everything from a service that transcribes conference calls and meetings in real time, to a watch that connects a PA system or telephone audio directly into his hearing aids, Paul is completely wired.

But when you’re across from him in a quiet office or a crowded auditorium, he does things the old fashioned way, he looks at you — the whole time.

In our always-on, multi-channel, multi-tasking world, presence is a differentiator. And it’s one I hope someone will notice about me one day. Want to join me?

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