What It Means to Be “Present”

image of an actor reading from a script with a clapboard in front

What does it mean to be "present" or "in the moment"? This concept comes up often in acting and communication classes, but it was never explained to my satisfaction. I could tell it was something good: those who were "present" seemed more authentic. They created an empathic bond with the other person. They seemed more alive. But what were they doing and what was the real need? Here's my take on it.

To be present is to be aware of your immediate surroundings, the values at stake for you now, and your power of choice in this moment. 

In other words, to be present is to be living in the here and now. You are aware of reality — now — including the threats and opportunities you face — now. You are aware of your power to choose — now — to act to gain your values, or not. 

Is it bizarre, ironic, or perfectly logical that actors first developed this concept?

Take the scene in which Hamlet tells Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery," meaning a whorehouse. To be "present," the actor playing Hamlet needs to be reacting genuinely to Ophelia as she delivers her lines.  He needs to know his own character's objective, meaning what he's trying to get in this scene. Perhaps he wants to humiliate her, or hurt her, or protect himself. The actor playing Hamlet needs to keep that in mind, and see himself as making choices to achieve that end. If he starts reciting lines on autopilot, the drama is lost. 

Similarly, as a speaker or teacher, you need to stay present when communicating to a group. You need to notice and react to the body language, noises, and other evidence that indicate whether they are "getting it" or not. You need to hold in mind your desire to connect and clarify at every moment, so you can adjust your delivery to ensure these individuals in this group can take in what you're saying.

In the past, I have described being present as being emotionally self-aware, but I see that this is not the fundamental issue. People who are indulging in their anger or misery or confusion are emotionally self-aware, but not present. They have no mental space to pay attention to the world around them. They are caught up in their emotions, and thereby missing opportunities and ignoring threats, and acting as if they were powerless. How many times have you seen someone spend an hour bemoaning how much work he has to do, when if he spent that hour working, he would have gotten most of it done? 

The fundamental that allows you to be present is: you are aware of your values at stake in this moment. By values at stake, I mean the values that you will gain or lose, based on your action right now. 

For example, imagine a manager has a difficult conversation with a team member who had not been keeping their customer up to date. Suppose she starts out with the intention of educating him on what he needs to do differently, but he becomes defensive. At that moment, the values at stake for her change. As the manager, she can see that educating him is off the table for the moment. A person who is defensive won't take in what she's saying. She needs to know what she wants instead in that moment. Does she want to re-establish trust or camaraderie with him? If so, active listening is a good choice of action. Or is she afraid she'll let his defensiveness push her buttons? Then she may want to give herself empathy.

Your emotional value-system is designed to alert you to possible threats and opportunities as they arise.

But translating emotions into awareness of the values that are truly at stake is not automatic. How do you know what values are at stake in this moment? You need to work at it.

First, you need to monitor your feelings. Without emotional self-awareness, you don't even realize an alert is happening. Emotional self-awareness is necessary, albeit not sufficient.

Second, you need to introspect the feeling to determine the meaning of it. If it's tension or tiredness or some other mind/body state signal, it's obvious. If it's an emotion, it's not. What is the underlying evaluation that gave rise to this emotion? Is it true? 

Third, you need to translate concrete threats and opportunities you've identified into the language of deep rational values, so that you can look at everything from the perspective of gaining the biggest value. 

This is why staying present when talking one-on-one takes a higher degree of skill.  You don't have the luxury of analyzing the script beforehand. If you drop out mentally to think about what's going on in a conversation, you are no longer present in the conversation, and the person immediately feels the emotional disconnect.

So how do you learn to stay present? I recommend you start with the easier case: thinking at your desk about the values at stake. Analyze conversations in hindsight. Prepare for difficult conversations beforehand, trying to map out what is at stake for you and the other person, so you don't have to work it out on the spot. 

And then of course, there is training in the real-time skill, which is best learned in role plays. I learned it in 200 hours of training in the work of Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication. I teach introductions to his work in the Thinking Lab under the heading of "Rationally Connected Conversations." 

But don't feel you can't be present without training. You can be present. You just need to stay aware of what's happening, why it matters, and that you have a choice, right now.

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