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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]

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