Blog Post: The Most Essential Characteristic – Presence



There is no better time to be present than… well… the present. Only those who are present will affect the future, and the problem is that those who at least appear to be present, those who are often the most aggressive, aren’t the ones I hope will direct the future. Let me give you some commonplace examples:

  • Laura has grown to dread the annual board meeting for her non-profit. Over two days, one knotty board member endlessly harangues over the uselessness of the organization and the inability of Laura in particular to affect any useful change at all. The other board members and Laura, sit and soak in the darkness, praying for the two days to end. The criticism goes unchallenged.
  • John has been with the company for over 30 years and risen to the highest position a non-family member can hold. The staff in lower positions often refer to John as the owner’s pet because, in the family’s eyes, John can do no wrong. During a phone call, a salesperson was wringing John’s patience, railing on John’s inability to champion an unpopular cause because of his fear of the family’s disdain. When John could take no more, he slammed the phone hard onto its carriage.
  • Roger is the senior pastor of a slowly declining church and is generally appreciated for his powerful preaching and kind presence. As happens in many churches, a church boss arose and began nitpicking at Roger’s leadership at every opportunity. In one conversation, the church boss was ripping Roger for not bringing attention to the members of her family when he was praising a recent mission trip. Even though the accusation was completely inaccurate, Roger profusely apologized and soon resigned from his position.

When push came to shove, these leaders chose not to be present. They chose to let the aggressive person decide the future. In recent years, this is becoming an epidemic in North American organizations. The mistake is equating being present with standing up for yourself. These situations did not require a fight. They required a conversation. The first requirement is to learn how to be present in stressful situations.

Presence, as I mean it throughout these pages, is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential. – Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Cuddy’s book is a must-read for coaches and leaders. She applies helpful psychology and sociology in lots of real-life situations. From her own experience having a traumatic brain injury, Cuddy had to learn to be present in her career, rising to a significant position at Harvard University. In her book, she teaches and encourages us to do the same.

Let’s work through her definition of presence and see how we might apply it in our situations.

Presence is… A State of Being

One can be in a state of confusion, a state of panic, or a state of delirium, among many possible states. The state can and does change, usually by taking some action. Presence is a state. In simple terms, you can either be present or not present. The good news is no one is always present. The key is to be able to become present at the appropriate times. This requires a surplus of emotional energy, a quieting of the inner critic, and the discipline and decision to become present when the need arises.

Presence is… Being Attuned and Able

Presence involves becoming aware of the world around you. Lots of people live in their heads. Tony Robbins made famous the phrase, “If you’re in your head, you’re dead,” meaning that if you are not aware of what is going on around you, then you will have no agency. Many times the real problem is not the presented problem. Some problems occur when someone is not getting what they need, though they rarely ask for it directly.

Presence is… Comfortably Expressed

Presence does not intimidate or terrify or make the other person shrink. A truly present person makes room for everyone in the room to comfortably express that which has been uncomfortable. One way to become more present is to change your physical expression. Don’t cover your face. Don’t fold your arms. Don’t clench your fists. Open up your arms, open up your face. Smile if possible, even at the absurdity of the situation. Express love. This outward expression will become an inward expression and allow you to more comfortably express yourself in the situation.

Presence is… True thoughts, feelings, values, and potential

Presence opens new dimensions. At first, when you feel attacked, you only know one dimension. I have an enemy. They are on one side, and I am on the other. Presence makes known many more possibilities. You do not become present to defend yourself but to take the gathered group to a new place of understanding. You help the group better understand the current reality and to consider what might be ultimately possible.


A calm presence puts you in control. Someone once said the person in charge of the room is the most anxious person or the least anxious person. You need to become the least anxious person, who has the ability to take the entire conversation to a new level and draw out potential common ground and actions that everyone can appreciate.

Some are calling this lack of presence the Great Resignation. People are resigning from government, from church, from business, and even from families in droves. If the most anxious are leading us, then our lives will become ever more anxious. We will lose our influence. It is essential that more than any other characteristic, we must learn to become more and more present.

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