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Learning presence and self-regulation in conversation

The key to effective team communication

65% of startups fail due to co-founder conflict. This means that despite our best efforts, teams implode when communication breaks down. The stress of big projects leads to personality conflict and friction on a team. The internal friction builds, leading to dysfunction and disengagement.

How do we fix organizational dysfunction?

Presence in conversation

The first communication skill any team member can improve is presence in conversation. Presence means being fully engaged without distraction in communication. Being fully present means maintaining eye contact, being fully in the moment, and listening to what is being said. If you are multitasking in a meeting, you’re not fully present. Presence is the art of respectfully engaging directly with people in the room.

Presence is an important professional skill because it is the foundation of our professional relationships. When we get distracted or don’t fully engage with each other at work, we are sending mixed messages about our support for each other.

Every time you look at your phone during a meeting you are sending a message to the meeting host: “I wish I was somewhere else.”

The more distracted we become the more others will be less interested in connecting with us. We unintentionally weaken our work relationships.

Think of the most professional person you work with. Do they check their phone while they talk to you? Do they glance at their watch every five minutes? Or are they fully present and engaged with people in the room — going out of their way to make others feel heard and seen?


One way to sharpen our presence is to learn self-regulate. We practice the self-regulation skill by simulating our brain’s ability to toggle between the emotional brain and the rational brain. A common blindspot many of us have is our inability to know and control how we show up for others.

What is our impact on the people we work with? Are we showing up as rude and pushy? Or passive and disengaged?

Practicing being present

In our team communication sessions we practice this skill by facilitating the following exercise: (Disclaimer: I’m only partially describing an exercise in order to make the point. You’ll have to come to one of our sessions to experience the real thing!)

Break into pairs

Person A asks Person B a relatively easy question that they know the answer to.

Person B answers the question

Rules: The challenge of the exercise is to

Maintain eye contact. Do not look away while you are answering.

Don’t use filler words like “um” or “like” or “so”

If Person B looks away or uses filler words, Person A moves on to another question.

Here’s what always happens

Person B wants to answer quickly and accurately. Their impulse is to blurt out the answer. Their focus is on nailing the content. The rational brain wants to treat the question like a test or like responding to an email. Get that content!

When Person B hears question, the pressure of answering on the spot triggers an emotion associated with the pressure of answering on the spot: excitement, panic, nervousness, embarrassment, etc.

In their brain, the limbic system (the ‘fight or flight’ instinct) has taken over from rational brain. A resulting impulse is to look away or to use filler words while searching our memory for the correct answer. Fail. Try again with a new question.

During a second attempt Person B is now even more flustered, confused and embarrassed — how could I fail this easy test? Now they are hyper aware of how they are delivering the content. By the third or fourth time they have learned to self-regulate. They can balance the two tasks: Answer the question correctly and control how they deliver it. High fives!

The key is to remain calm, think carefully, and answer slowly while purposefully controlling the way our body communicates the answer — maintaining eye contact and controlling our speech.

Why do we look aware or say “um” even when we know the rules of the game? Because this is how we naturally concentrate, experience emotions, get distracted and communicate. We may be unaware of what our body does when we are thinking on the spot. The emotion — nervousness — can trigger an impulse to look away or say “um” as we are thinking. The exercise is an example of practicing self-control to improve how you show up to others at work.

Presence is powerful

Presence helps us make strong connections and influence others. When we look away or say “um” we are, without knowing it, disconnecting from from our audience. Strong, in person communication is a combination of professional presence and valuable content.

Communication has many levels — eyes, vocal tone, body language, facial expression — and yes, content. The ability to balance them all is an advanced professional skill.

The exercise, while effective, is a bit contrived. We don’t need to actually stare at each other while we talk at work, but we do need to learn to self-regulate — be aware of our emotions and impulses. And we do need to be aware of how our communication behavior is effecting the audience. We start with self-awareness — how often am I saying um? How often to dI look away?

Presence in conversation and self-regulation are the building blocks to effective communication at work.



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