Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

How To Reverse Your Hard Wiring For Distraction

If you want to be charismatic, your mind can't wander while you're one-on-one with a customer or colleague. Here's a simple one-minute exercise to help you focus.

Charismatic behavior can be broken down into three core elements: presence, power, and warmth. These elements depend both on our conscious behaviors and on factors we don’t consciously control. People pick up on messages we often don’t even realize we’re sending through small changes in our body language.

In order to be charismatic, we need to choose mental states that make our body language, words, and behaviors flow together and express the three core elements of charisma. And presence is the foundation for everything else.

Have you ever felt, in the middle of a conversation, as if only half of your mind were present while the other half was busy doing something else? Do you think the other person noticed? If you’re not fully present in an interaction, there’s a good chance that your eyes will glaze over or that your facial reactions will be a split-second delayed. Since the mind can read facial expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds, the person you’re speaking with will likely notice even the tiniest delays in your reactions.

We may think that we can fake presence. We may think that we can fake listening. But we’re wrong. When we’re not fully present in an interaction, people will see it. Our body language sends a clear message that other people read and react to, at least on a subconscious level.

Not only can the lack of presence be visible, it can also be perceived as inauthentic, which has even worse consequences. When you’re perceived as disingenuous, it’s virtually impossible to generate trust, rapport, or loyalty. And it’s impossible to be charismatic.

Luckily, presence is a learnable skill that can be improved with practice and patience. Being present means simply having a moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening. It means paying attention to what’s going on rather than being caught up in your own thoughts.

Now that you know the cost of lacking presence, try this exercise to test yourself and learn three simple techniques to boost your charisma in personal interactions.

First, find a reasonably quiet place where you can close your eyes (whether standing or sitting).
Set a timer for one minute. Close your eyes and focus on one of the following three things: the sounds around you, your breathing, or the sensations in your toes.

  1. Scan your environment for sound. As a meditation teacher told me, "Imagine that your ears are satellite dishes, passively and objectively registering sounds."
  2. Focus on your breath and the sensations it creates in your nostrils or stomach. Pay attention to one breath at a time, but try to notice everything about this one breath. Imagine that your breath is someone you want to give your full attention to.
  3. Focus your attention on the sensations in your toes. This forces your mind to sweep through your body, helping you to get into the physical sensations of the moment.

Did you find your mind constantly wandering even though you were trying your best to be present? As you’ve noticed, staying fully present isn’t always easy. There are two main reasons for this.

First, our brains are wired to pay attention to novel stimuli, whether they be sights, smells, or sounds. We’re wired to be distracted, to have our attention grabbed by any new stimulus: it could be important! It could eat us! This tendency was key to our ancestors’ survival. Imagine two tribesmen hunting through the plains, searching the horizon for signs of the antelope that could feed their family. Something flickers in the distance. The tribesman whose attention wasn’t immediately caught? He’s not our ancestor.

The second reason is that our society encourages distraction. The constant influx of stimulation we receive worsens our natural tendencies. This can eventually lead us into a state of continuous partial attention, in which we never give our full attention to any single thing. We’re always partially distracted.

So if you often find it hard to be fully present, don’t beat yourself up. Presence is hard for almost all of us. A study coauthored by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert estimated that nearly half of the average person’s time was spent "mind wandering."

The good news is that even a minor increase in your capacity for presence can have a major effect on those around you. Because so few of us are ever fully present, if you can manage even a few moments of full presence from time to time, you’ll make quite an impact.

The very next time you’re in a conversation, try to regularly check whether your mind is fully engaged or whether it is wandering elsewhere (including preparing your next sentence). Aim to bring yourself back to the present moment as often as you can by focusing on your breath or your toes for just a second, and then get back to focusing on the other person.

One of my clients, after trying this exercise for the first time, reported: "I found myself relaxing, smiling, and others suddenly noticed me and smiled back without my saying a word."

Don’t be discouraged if you feel that you didn’t fully succeed in the one-minute exercise above. You actually did gain a charisma boost simply by practicing presence. And because you’ve already gained the mindset shift (awareness of the importance of presence and the cost of the lack of it), you’re already ahead of the game.

RelatedCultivating Charisma: How Personal Magnetism Can Help (Or Hurt) You At Work

Excerpted from The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Fox Cabane.

[Image: Flickr user Paul Alegria]

Add New Comment


  • FB

    It’s interesting to see the concept of meditation and
    quieting your mind applied to focus, presence and charisma. The exercise given
    is extremely similar to the first exercise in the book called “Quiet Your Mind”
    by John Selby. If you’re looking for a broader exploration of erasing
    distraction, check it out.

  • MoneyforMainStreet

    Great article - we spend a lot of time worrying about engaging people in
    person and via social networking.  I think this article is a precursor to
    social networking, because we must learn how to be charismatic engaging
    individuals and then transfer this to other elements of our lives.  This
    simple exercise can be used for a number of things - before making an important
    call, before introducing yourself at a networking event, an of course before
    writing a comment about an article.  Learning how to avoid distractions in a large crowd or at your desk will help you close more
    opportunities and increase productivity when you are working.  Thanks for
    the advice Olivia! 

  • Rob Metras

    This struck me as inere4sting and reminded me of a startup I saw the other day called which talks about attention span and multipotentialites, where you can turn the distraction into challenges.

  • Herb Garfield

    Early morning preparation seems to be most important before one does anything.  Simply be mindful of what concerns you presently for the day. Being now in a state of presence to the utmost of your your capability, pray for the abilities mentioned to carry you through, along with the desired outcomes, "if it be Thy will."

  • Suryanarayana Chennapragada

    I can certify from my experience over the last 10 years, that ‘Focusing on breathing’ (FOB) is a simple and doable technique to improve focus and concentration. The simplest mode of practicing this technique is counting breaths, described below.**** Counting mode: While breathing in, feel the faint coolness inside the nose and on the top lip. While breathing out, count slowly in the mind. First out-breath, count  ‘one…’, second out-breath, ‘twoo….’ and third out-breath ‘threee….’. Then repeat the same sequence: counting ‘one….’ during the first out-breath and so on. Continue this practice of counting breaths in sets of three, as long as you like. You will lose track of breathing or counting some times. Every time you realize that your mind wandered, count ‘one….’ during the next out-breath and get back to the practice.**** Five other modes of ‘focusing on breathing’ - Tip Mode, Segment mode, Feeling mode, Staring mode and 911 modes can be sen in this page the Segment mode, Counting mode and Feeling modes in this sequence, lying in the bed, at night, leads to great quality of sleep. Practicing FOB in the morning, still in the bed, makes one fresh and well prepared, to calmly handle the stressful situations of the day. We can use FOB, anywhere and anytime, even for a few seconds, to develop concentration into a built in habit.

  • marykparker

    One of my professors had this amazing ability to make us feel as though we were the only people in the room---clearly, he possessed the skills to remain present.
    I've found in personal practice that putting things down, placing my hands in my lap, facing the other person and looking at them helps me remain focused. It's till hard though.

  • Lance

    I find the correlation between attentiveness and charisma fascinating.  It makes perfect sense but I have never drawn that association.  With the move toward a world that's always on, small exercises like these are great ways to ground yourself.  

  • John Hotchkiss

    Had I not been distracted from my work as a business analyst, I would not have seen this article. The trick, for me at least, is to manage my strong, natural tendency to wander mentally. Good article.

  • Cedricj

    At times most of us listen with half an ear. And you are right to to see that as diminishing charisma.

    The key is to be fully present or mindful. 

    That clearing of mental clutter and stilling of the mind is a powerful state.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others