Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Be still

Still waters at QianHai, Beijing
Have you ever wondered how some people can command the room when they speak, whether they are behind the podium, at an interview desk, or just standing in front of a room full of people balancing wine glasses and cocktail plates? They look confident. They have presence. There is a perception that such ability to "own the room" comes with the territory once you are in a position of power. And yet, there are many who should (by that definition) have it but don't.  This quality -- this presence -- comes from being physically at ease, centered, still. No fidgets, no wiggles, no shifting. No pushing the message at people, but rather, drawing them in. These leaders are not still as in "stiff"; they are still as in "grounded." It's a simple concept, but a hard one to master.

I was teaching a course, Political Skills Building, for American University's Department of Government this past weekend and we looked at clips of leaders in various speech situations. We also put our students on tape for their short leadership speeches. They found it was challenging to stand still, not wiggle or shuffle or fidget, but just stand in front of the camera and the people and be -- be in the moment, be confident in your message. And they're right; it is.

I shared with them some acting exercises for breathing and posture, very similar to ones yoga practitioners do to attain "centeredness." (In fact, if you Google "power of stillness" you can find all sorts of meditation references and resources.) My students were quick learners, and soon they were on their way to finding and keeping their own stillness. But it takes some time to undo years of self-consciousness and noisy inner-criticism. It takes months of practice. And it takes trust that when you are put to the test (the next time you have to stand up and speak) your body will remember how to keep the wiggles out and the stillness in. 

Sometime clients tell me, "Well, I don't want to be stiff and look unnatural." And I reiterate that we are not aiming for statue-like immobility. We are seeking a calm that is not passive, but actively rooted in maintaining physical control in the face of a scary situation. By claiming leadership you have singled yourself out from the crowd, yet you cannot give in to fear. Your body needs to have practiced this inner calm enough to be able to say "no" very quickly to your natural fight or flight instinct.

The hardest part may come as you try to maintain that presence when you begin to speak. That is because speaking is, after all, a physical activity. But the activity of speaking has to do with breathing and vocal production, not shuffling feet, wiggling shoulders, shifting weight from one hip to the other or aimlessly gesticulating. These all signal the opposite of what you might think ("I am moving around to look casual so they think I am comfortable"). They signal that you want to run, or hide, and are not at ease enough to stand still, to be open and vulnerable.

Master the leader's stance. Be still in a room full of noise and movement and you will command attention, even before you say a word.

No comments:

Post a Comment