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The Power of Presence

George Barnes 12th January 2022

To be present means to be completely focussed and involved in a certain situation, conversation or experience. It is to relinquish all distractions and immerse oneself in that moment. Presence reveals itself. We believe our story; we convey confidence without arrogance and we communicate harmoniously. True confidence is comforting and arrogance is off-putting, it is a fine line.

Think about the time you noticed someone walk into a room and people stepped aside. Heads turned and conversations simmered but re-opened to include them. When they spoke, people listened and when they asked, people answered. They lead, people follow and when they leave, things were not as they were before. This is someone who has personal power, someone that has presence.

Being present means joining somebody in that moment as equals. It is not a moment of exchange but a period of mutual support. You can tell when somebody is present with you, it is a receptive look in the eye, a question underneath or a comment surfacing. Presence is tricky to define but easy to spot, however it is something that we are losing as a society, as a community. With smartphones becoming an extension of the person and natural disruptors all around us, the ability to continue to connect back to our presence is fading.

The importance of presence

The great joy of being a human being is that we engage with others. We are tribalistic, social animals ill-equipped to live on our own. We crave social bonds so it is a gift when people are totally present with one another. Knowledge is power but not when you are present with somebody, as that pushes an agenda within a situation. The priority must become your inner state of being that wants to support the other person without having an agenda. The key thing with being present is to approach the situation like a loving side kick, rather than a top dog.

Presence is also about oneself. For example, a situation that you approach with dread, execute with anxiety and leave with regret, you are not present. But what stops us from being present? We cling to the outcome and neglect the process; we obsess about how others are judging us and we feel powerless and so consent to that feeling. Patsy Rodenburg has devised a concept labelled the circles of energy. Being aware of these circles and understanding where you are within the circles can be a good start in the search for better presence.

Patsy Rodenburg’s circles of energy

The first circle, the circle of oneself, withdrawal and self-negation. This is a place where all of us have spent some time, a place where one speaks within themselves, where energy falls back into you. On the other side of first circle is third circle, generalised energy that is pushed out. This is a place where people tend to be aggressive and narcissistic. Shakespeare productions are a good example of third circle energy. They are all written as if the characters are shouting at one another, ‘My liege, your horse awaits!’. Energy is going out; it is of the future and it is very controlling. The third circle has a superficial energy, you cannot be present in this place, it does not work.

The Power of Presence 1

The optimal state, the circle of energy of absolute intimacy is the second circle. This is the place where there is an exchange of energy between two people and the focus is absolutely on something, be that a with another person, a toy, listening to music or reading a book – there is a total connection and the give and the take of being totally present. The second circle is the circle of absolute equality, some people do not want to go into second circle because they feel the victimhood of first or the controlling superiority of third circle but in second we are equal.

The question that Rodenburg asks, that is prevalent today is, are we losing the second circle? It is frequent to see people at restaurants get their mobile phones out during the evening, or for someone to have the television on in the background whilst in conversation. These people are in first circle, they are in a room with somebody but they are alone. It is important that we do not lose the second circle, as a society and a community we are getting lonelier and we are becoming disconnected with our presence.

Body language and other signals

Presence is not just about the words you say or how you say them, body language plays a huge role in how others view us. There has been considerable research into the impact of the signals we send about ourselves and Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA established that the context of what we say makes up 7% of what people register, our tone of voice for 38% and our body language 55%. This is a staggering statistic, that body language makes up for more than half of how other people perceive our presence.

But our body language is even more significant to ourselves internally than this figure might suggest. Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour and our behaviour changes our outcomes. An example of this is the Haka, a ceremonial dance in Māori culture most commonly associated with the New Zealand Rugby team. On the outset this may be seen as a macho, alpha-male show of aggression but this could not be further from why these people do it. Through a show of harmonised body language and all being totally present with one another in that moment, the team feel a special sense of collective togetherness, a moment that brings them power with unity.

On the other hand, when we feel powerless, our bodies tell us to fight, flee or faint. This sense of powerlessness blocks presence whereas presence comes with personal power. The New Zealand Rugby team collectively enhance their personal power through body language and as a result cultivate their presence. There is a reason the New Zealand Rugby team are the greatest Rugby team of all time. As well as their sporting ability, their unity and desire to be totally present gives them a considerable advantage.

Whilst we are not all going to start the day doing the Haka, taking time to reflect on our own body language on a day-to-day basis can be extremely beneficial. Perhaps a rethink on the importance of body language can help contribute to limit the continuing disconnection with our presence.