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Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, uses experimental methods to investigate how people judge and influence each other and themselves. Her research suggests that judgments[…]

If the only constant in life is change, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, finding your true, bedrock self becomes a problematic idea. How do you know when you’ve found it? Hasn’t the search for yourself changed who you are? And don’t your experiences in life constantly shape you into a new person? Suffice it to say that being authentic does not mean reacting to life in easily predictable ways. So if you are looking to be yourself — indeed, your best and strongest self — it is important to understand what you believe, what you value, and what your abilities are, says Amy Cuddy.

That comes down to an idea she calls “presence,” which means bringing your best self to life’s most challenging events. What these events are — a job interview, a stressful social or family situation — vary from person to person. But what is constant across these events is our true self: our beliefs, values, and abilities. If you go into stressful situations with a strong sense of what these bedrock qualities are for you, you’ll perform better in the face of adversity, says Cuddy.

While a job interview or family dispute is probably not a matter of life-or-death, it may feel that way because your biology, e.g. your nervous system, is evolved to deal with life-or-death situations. Cuddy’s point is not about overcoming evolutionary forces, but that noticing how your body reacts to stressful situations — what makes your palm sweat, for example? — is a way to identify what are your biggest life challenges. “So once you’ve identified what’s happening in the situation when those things happen,” says Cuddy, “you start to become much more attuned to those bodily cues. And so when they happen in the future you can sort of course correct earlier.”

Cuddy’s book is Presence: Bring Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

Amy Cuddy:  Presence is the state of being attuned to, and able to comfortably express, your true self — so your best qualities, your core values, your personality — and really to do so under stressful circumstances. Because when you can do that, you’re then able to kind of let your guard down and hear what’s actually happening in the situation rather than what you fear might be happening. Presence comes from knowing your story, you know, really knowing who you are — so knowing what your core values are, what makes you you. What’s one of the things about you that can’t be changed, no matter how you perform in this negotiation or on this math test?

So it comes from knowing who you are, accepting who you are, believing your story and then being able to access those things. And sometimes people have all of that but they can’t access it. So when they get into that stressful situation they go into fight-or-flight mode, and they basically shut down, and a wall comes up, and now they can’t access the very tools that they actually possess to do well in that situations. So they can’t be present. It’s just not possible.

Everyone has these biggest challenges and they are situations that we approach with a sense of dread that we execute with anxiety and distraction. We’re thinking about what they might be thinking of us, what we should have said two minutes ago, what’s going to happen in the future. And then we leave them with a sense of regret, feel that we weren’t seen. Now these big challenges vary dramatically across people. So for some people it might be a job interview. For a lot of people it’s a job interview. For some people it might be relationship conflict at home. For other people it might be going to see the doctor and, you know, making sure that you’re getting all the information you need. So it varies dramatically but I think there are sort of two key elements.

One is that it feels very high stakes so it feels like whatever happens in that situation is going to dramatically affect your life. And the other is that there’s some element of social judgment, so if somebody is judging you on a dimension that really matters to you: are you a good person, are you a smart person, are you a healthy person? So the stakes are high and there’s social judgment.

Now what happens when you put these things together is that people feel as if they are in a really threatening situation. And so their nervous system sort of goes into this fight-or-flight mode which might be adapted if you’re being chased by a tiger but you’re not being chased by a tiger in a job interview. You’re just in a job interview. And you’re either going to get the job or you’re not going to get the job, that’ sit. It’s not adaptive in the situations in which you see it happen in today’s world. So I kind of think that it’s evolution not catching up with what the real challenges are that we’re dealing with today.

The most important thing I think is to know: "what are your biggest challenges?" Now you probably can come up with some off the top of your head but there might be some that you’re not even really aware of until you’re in them. So I think one way to get at that is to really pay attention to your body: what’s happening in the moments when you tend to slouch and wrap yourself up? What’s happening when you start to breathe shallowly and quickly? What’s happening when you start to sweat? What are the things that are happening in the situation at those moments when you’re showing physical signs of stress and anxiety and depression and powerlessness? So once you’ve sort of identified what’s happening in the situation when those things happen you start to become much more attuned to those bodily cues. And so when they happen in the future you can sort of course correct earlier.

When people are present in a social interaction you can tell. Now you may not be conscious of what it is you’re noticing but you’re picking up on some things. The first is that they clearly believe their story. So they buy what they’re selling. They truly buy what they’re selling. You wouldn’t buy anything from somebody who wouldn’t buy what they’re selling, right. You would never do that although we’ve all probably been in situations where we’ve had to try to sell something that we don’t really believe in. So when people are present they are attuned to their true beliefs, values, and abilities. And so they can really believe their story. And people see that. Investors see that. That’s one of the cues that investors really look for when they’re looking at pitches. You know if you say what are you looking for? What cues are you looking for when you’re judging pitches? They don’t say someone who’s totally calm. They say someone who believes their story. And that takes us sort of to the next one. If you think about investors they’re not looking for someone who’s a hundred percent confident in the kind of alpha way. They want somebody who’s confident but not arrogant.

So when you’re truly confident you don’t need to be arrogant. Arrogance is really just a smokescreen for insecurity, you know. It’s something people put up when they don’t want to be challenged. It works in that moment but it’s not a sustainable strategy. And if you communicate arrogance and you leave that situation the people who you talk to probably aren’t going to like you a whole lot, right. Maybe you weren’t challenged in that moment but you also didn’t get the desired outcome. So confidence, true confidence allows you to be open to what other people are saying. So if you’re bringing in an idea that you really care about you should want that idea to be as, you know, as good as possible. So you should want to be open to constructive feedback, right. People want to work with you if they see you as a collaborator, not someone who’s trying to say I have all the answers.

The third thing that you see when somebody’s present is what I call synchrony across the verbal and nonverbal channels. And what I mean by that is that when we are being authentic and present and you could think of it as when we’re telling the truth our words match our body language. So we’re not having to manage all of these things in a piecemeal kind of robotic way. It’s not choreographed. If we’re telling a happy story our body’s doing the things that we do when we feel happy. That’s how you see authenticity. We know that from the research on lie detection — everyone is sort of interested in lie detection — and if you ask people how do you know if somebody’s lying they will say, "eye contact."

It turns out that eye contact is not a good way to know if somebody is lying. There are big personality differences. Some people don’t want to make eye contact when they’re being challenged or questioned. But that doesn’t mean they’re lying. There are cultural differences. In some cultures children are taught you don’t ever look up at or make eye contact with somebody who’s questioning you, right. So it’s just not a good cue. And in fact there’s no single body language cue that gives away lying. There’s no Pinocchio effect. The nose doesn’t grow, you know. There’s nothing like that. You can tell if somebody’s being inauthentic or if somebody’s lying by watching, you know, whether or not their words and body language are synchronized. When you are lying or being inauthentic because you’re scared to show people who you are you’re trying to put, you know, you’re trying to communicate something that’s not exactly real, right.

So the story that you’re telling is not going to match what you’re doing with your body language because you don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to manage all of those different elements. Because think about it. You’ve got words, you’ve got tone of voice. How quickly are you talking? I mean we’re still just at speaking. Then you have your eyes and the rest of your face. What are you doing with your lower body, you know, your arms, your feet? All of those things come together when you’re telling the truth. When you’re being inauthentic it leaks out. Somewhere there is an asynchrony and when you are not being present it leaks out in the same way. 

I don’t think that one achieves presence so I don’t think that you get to a point or you are permanently present in a certain monk like state of presence. And I say that because I actually think that sort of in the second half of the twentieth century a lot of the writings about presence kind of implied that that’s what you’re going for. That either it’s stage presence and charisma which is a totally different thing or it’s this permanent state of presence that you achieve if you work for it your whole life and maybe the day before you die suddenly you become present. And that’s daunting. No one can be present all the time because we’re human and we’re distracted. There’s too much going on. So of course we’re going to be distracted.