Have you ever been in a situation where you’re in the middle of a meeting, discussing something that is very important to you and which you feel passionate about, only to have somebody ask you a question for which you don’t have the answer. Have you fumbled with your response, get all self-conscious, feel like a bit of a stunned mullet and just can’t get a coherent sentence together. Then later when you leave the meeting, do you think of all the fantastic things you could have said to respond to this question. “If only I have said……” “What if I had……” This was me recently in a meeting with a new client I was hoping to impress. As I came out of the meeting, I then thought of all the brilliant things I could have said as I was walking back to my car.
I was rereading Amy Cuddy’s book Presence again over the weekend and she explains that 18th century French philosopher and writer, Denis Diderot called this the “spirit of the stairs”. Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in conversation over a topic he knew very well. But for whatever reason he wasn’t himself that night, perhaps a bit self-conscious, distracted or worried about appearing foolish. When he was challenged on a particular point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of putting together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party. On his way down the staircase, Diderot replayed that humiliating moment over and over in his mind and as he did so he searched for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, voila, he found it. At that moment he contemplated turning around, walking back up the stairs and returning to the party to deliver his witty come back, but alas, it was too late at that point, the opportunity had passed. He was flooded with regret. If only he’d had the presence of mind to find the right words he needed at the time. Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs.”
We all want that do-over. We have all had our own personal experiences. Perhaps it’s been in a job interview, going on a date, having a conversation at a dinner party, answering a question after a presentation. Going into the situation, were we constantly worried about what others might think of us? Did we feel powerless? Were we worried about looking foolish? It would seem that this anticipatory anxiety often winds us into knots of self defeat. Before we even show up to the meeting we are full of anxiety and dread, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded. Cuddy explains that we have basically condemned ourselves to leave the situation feeling bad when we walk into a high-pressure situation with this frame of mind.
At this point we are consumed by “If Onlys” and “What ifs”. If only I had remembered to say this….. If only I’d done it that way…… If only I’d shown them who I really am.
But can we be really engaged in a successful interaction when we are so busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the internal monologue that we have running around in our heads. We have constant self-doubt and we constantly anticipate the future outcome in a negative way. When you really need to be present in the room, this is the time when we are actually least likely to be.
Consider an opportunity where you don’t give power to these self-fulfilling prophecies. An opportunity to actually be in the moment, feel energised and at ease with what we’re saying and what we’re doing, imagine feeling liberated from your fears about how others may be judging you. Imagine leaving the situation you’re in without regret and satisfied that you did your best. Imagine the opportunities when you have Presence!
Cuddy defines Presence as… The state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our thoughts, feelings, values and potential.
Cuddy indicates that “presence emerges when we feel personally powerful, which allows us to be acutely attuned to our most sincere selves. In this psychological state, we are able to maintain presence even in very stressful situations that typically make us feel distracted and powerless. When we feel present, our speech, facial expressions, postures and movements align. They synchronise and focus. This internal convergence, this harmony, is palpable and resonant because it is real. We are no longer fighting ourselves, we are being ourselves.”
Cuddy explains that we should focus on moments, achieving a state of psychological presence that lasts just long enough to get us through our most challenging situations. Through self nudges, small tweaks in our body language and mindsets, we can achieve presence.
One of my favourite quotes from Amy….. “Sometimes you have to get out of the way of yourself so you can be yourself.”
Want to know more about building your presence? Contact me to discuss coaching to build your self-confidence, presence and mental toughness.
Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.