Finding the X Factor - the neuroscience of presence
You will have experienced the feeling of a person, maybe a leader, shop assistant or friend who is completely focused on you and your needs. Their level of connection is palatable. For me it is best summed up in the words of a West African greeting, ‘Sawa bona,’ which translates to ‘I see you.’
The traditional response is ‘I am here’.
This exchange denotes that until you are ‘seen’ you do not exist and when you are seen you are brought into existence. This is the skill of deeply connecting to another and giving them attention. Many believe this speaks to a basic human need to be seen or validated. For many of us it is the X factor in business; people who can be present also connect deeply with others. It is an invaluable skill whether you are an HR leader, business partner or in shared services.
Everyone is capable of this level of connection. When we achieve it we understand more of what is going on in the business, are more influential, and increase engagement and ultimately productivity within the team.
Presence is a feeling state and one of the characteristics is that the experience feels spontaneous. There is no power play, posturing or self-consciousness and past experience is not interfering with the interaction. There is also an element of energy.
Research by the Institute of HeartMath shows that the heart, like the brain, generates an electromagnetic field. Director of Research Rollin McCraty says that: “The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brainwaves recorded in an electroencephalogram.” One of their significant findings is if people intentionally generate positive emotions by changing their state the electromagnetic heart information also changes.
According to the US National Institutes of Health in the USA the study of bioenergy is receiving increasing scientific attention. This research looks at the effect of electromagnetic heart fields that result in levels of heart-rate synchronization. It has been established that mothers synchronize with their baby’s heart rate.
What stops presence
The ability to connect therefore should be a learnable skill. But what gets in the way of achieving presence? In our discussions with clients we find these are the main issues:
- Distractions: This covers a fairly broad area including people checking their mobile phones.
- Internal dialogue: There is a lot of noise in most peoples’ heads. This ranges from self-conscious worry to planning what to say next, through to wondering what the other person thinks of us.
- Threat response: Being emotionally comfortable is important to staying present. You may start being engaged with the person but lose it when you feel “threatened.” The CORE model helps here both to manage and to diagnose triggers.
- Judgment: This often separates us from others. It blocks our ability to listen, closes down curiosity and reduces empathy. We judge all the time. The issue is hanging onto judgements; letting them interrupt the connection and break the presence.
- Habit: It’s my theory that we can get into the habit of not fully connecting, and only through practice will this habit be overcome.
Psychology has for many years emphasised the importance of not just the words but also the body language and tone of voice that goes with communication. People watch and make judgements on what is real, what is important and what is for show. This is intuitive but research from Sandy Pentland at MIT is able to verify and even put numbers on these factors. He has found that we act on and are influenced by the ‘honest signals’ people send. That is, the unconscious and non-verbal language including tone and energy. His team have developed a means of measuring these signals using an electronic badge.
Pentland says honest signals impact the success of individuals and teams and can account for as much as 50% of the performance of a group. As he points out we all know this at some level. We know when a leader or a team is being effective and productive and can notice the difference when they are not. Pentland found that a particular type of person is most effective in teams. He calls these people ‘charismatic connectors’ and they have many of the characteristics we associate with presence. They talk to everybody and drive the conversation around a team. They mainly work to connect people and information. The other interesting discovery Pentland made is that people can be trained to modify their honest signals to put in more energy or to communicate more effectively with their non-verbal signals. Making these changes improves the productivity and success of the team potentially by as much as an extra 8% in productivity improvements in call centre teams. You can see Pentland talking about his work here.
Training the skills
In our training we conduct an exercise that gets people to rehearse an upcoming meeting. We don’t worry about content but instead focus on the body posture, tone, speed of speech and energy of the speaker. Observers then coach the speaker to make minute adjustments one at a time to either, posture, tone, speed or energy. The adjustments are repeated until the observers believe the speaker has the best possible impact and feels confident. We have had numerous reports back that this has enabled participants to achieve results. I recall one sceptical HR professional who rehearsed a meeting he had to attend in the middle of the workshop, with the CEO. He was very doubtful his rather radical proposal would be accepted. He returned to the workshop beaming. He had adopted the coached posture etc and the pitch went well. Proposal accepted. He was a lot less sceptical about the rest of the workshop content and so were his colleagues.
Presence requires practice
I believe these are the elements that create the ability to be present.
- Personal Awareness: Being aware of ‘What do I do, how do I do it and why do I do it?’ You can’t be present to others if you are not self-aware. Because presence depends on your emotional state at any given time, increasing your ability to change your emotional state is also critical. Mindfulness can help here and practice noticing your state and naming it.
- You speak through your body and as Pentland found people pick up on this and respond both consciously and unconsciously. Everyone needs the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying,” somewhere close to hand. Like in our exercise, going into an interaction in the right state with the right degree of energy and relaxation in the body helps to achieve presence.
- Emotional control: Read my HRZone article on emotional control and success for more about this. Presence requires a willingness to be honest with yourself about what is going on in the moment. The most skilled are able to step outside the immediate interaction and sense that is working and what is not and make minute adjustments. Being curious is a great aid. It is nearly impossible to disconnect, judge or listen to your own internal dialogue if you are deeply curious about the other person. This is especially hard but crucial in conflict, which is when you need it most.
Further evidence that adopting the right attitude and body language works comes from research by Amy Cuddy. When people adopt new postures such as appearing more powerful or more interested in others, the brain also starts to change and the adopted approach can be integrated into everyday behaviour. This is useful evidence for any development programme suggesting that we can help people to change their style and their presence, not just what they do. You can watch her excellent video on her research here which investigates how people perceive and categorize others. Warmth and competence, she finds, are the two critical variables. They account for about 80% of our overall evaluations of people (i.e., Do you feel good or bad about this person?), and shape our emotions and behaviors toward them. Her warmth/competence analysis illuminates why we hire Kurt instead of Kyra, how students choose study partners, who gets targeted for sexual harassment etc.
My message is, presence takes practice and intention. Monitor your own impact; when you are present with someone versus when you are distracted. Note the difference in results on your influence and understanding. This will motivate you to identify the triggers, adapt and practice ‘seeing’ the other person.