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The Power Of Presence  

The first article in this series suggested that whether running your operation seems like being lost in the weeds or spending a day at the beach is strictly a function of your perspective. The beach is available to you but you can't see it from the weed patch. In the second installment, we looked at different models of management (the cop vs. the coach) and explored the idea that in the age of service it is our human skills that will determine the degree of our success.

The principles we are talking about are simple and common-sense but the key to changing your condition is to experience a true shift of understanding - a "blinding flash of the obvious." Merely grasping these concepts intellectually will not result in any real change in the workplace. Continuing this exploration, we will start to take a look at people as individuals and start to look at what makes them tick. The first insight to consider is what I will call presence.

The secret to creating impact with others is presence. Simply put, presence is a state of mind that is free from distraction. Your level of presence is the extent to which your mind is not occupied with thoughts unrelated to the project at hand.

Here are a few examples of what I mean. Have you ever been talking to someone who was listening to you . . . and then suddenly they weren't listening to you? They may even have been looking at you and nodding their heads as you spoke, but didn't you know when their attention was elsewhere? How about this: Have you talked with someone on the phone while they were doing something else at the same time? Even though you couldn't see them, hasn't it been obvious when you did not have their total attention? These are both instances of distraction or low presence.

Now recall your experience of what it feels like to talk to someone who was not really listening to you. If you are like most people, you probably find that distracted behavior to be rude at best and angering at worst.

A distracted state of mind creates irritation in other people. You know how incredibly annoying it can be to talk with someone whose mind has wandered. Yet we do the same thing to people constantly because we have accepted the notion that the way to be efficient and get more done is to do several tasks at once. In fact, effectiveness comes from just the opposite approach.

Here is a typical scene in foodservice: Have you ever had the phone in one ear while you were working on the schedule and trying to handle a staff member's question at the same time? My guess is that neither the person on the other end of the phone, nor the schedule nor your staff member got the quality of attention they really needed. In all likelihood you probably had to go back to one or all of these "projects" for clarification, to correct mistakes or to make another try at resolving - more "problems" that could easily have been avoided if you were not so distracted the first time.

Imagine a two year-old is looking for attention and you are busy. As they tug on your pants leg you say "Later, kid, I'm busy" without looking up from your work. Do they respond with "Oh sure, Dad, I understand?" Not a chance! To take care of a two year-old you have to drop what you are doing, get down eyeball to eyeball and give them your undivided attention for about five seconds. If you do this, you'll buy yourself some time. You may get a few minutes and you may get an hour but if children don't get your complete attention, they will pull on you for the rest of their natural life!

It is no different if they are twenty-two or sixty-two. Mostly what people want to know is that you "got it" - that whatever they had to say actually got through to you and this cannot happen if you are distracted. The only difference between dealing with children and adults is that kids are more honest - they will not pretend that they have your attention if your mind is wandering. Adults are usually more polite but no less observant.

The truth is that you can really only concentrate on one thing at a time anyway. When you are talking with another person, there is nothing you can do at that same moment about finishing the schedule (or your food cost, your sick child or your vacation, etc.). If your mind is occupied with extraneous thoughts your attention is not fully with the person in front of you. Even if they do not call you on it, they will notice and keep coming back again and again trying to get through to you.

As with children, you can handle an situation in five seconds or five hours - the only difference is your level of presence when you do it. So the secret to productivity is to handle things exactly the way you would with a child. Drop distractions, focus your attention, handle one item at a time and move on to the next project. Presence (or lack of distraction) will enable you to more accurately assess the situation and quickly deal with it in a more effective way.

In my service staff seminars, I point out that the reason guests leave a tip of 10% or 30% depends in large measure on the level of personal connection servers create with their guests. Presence increases the personal connection between people. In fact, without presence, there is no personal connection at all. Last week I watched one server increase his tips from 12% one night to over 25% the next night by doing nothing more than keeping his head clear when he was at the table. A pizzeria manager told me that over half of his "people problems" seemed to disappear when he started becoming aware of (and dropping) distracting thoughts.

When your guests have a complaint or when members of your staff have a question what they want most is to feel that you really heard what they had to say. Most people do not expect you to resolve their every concern on the spot, but they want to sense that what they had to say was important to you.

Just as a distracted state of mind creates irritation, presence makes people feel more positive. The feeling of being served is really a function of presence. What do you think the impact of presence (or lack of it) might be on how well-served your guests feel in the restaurant? What do you think the impact of presence (or lack of it) might be on how much your staff feels that you care for them?

You convey your level of caring by your level of presence. If you are distracted, people do not feel listened to and will continue to voice their concerns until either they know that you got the message or until they give up on you. (By the way, when they give up on you, they will probably leave for another job!) If you have ever worked for someone who did not listen, you know the feeling of being ignored. You can't tell someone who does not listen that they do not listen because, well, they do not listen. Most people who do not listen really think that they do. Your challenge is to be sure that you are not guilty of the same sin when someone needs your attention.

Presence is not something unnatural - all of us are born with high presence. Little babies have high presence because their heads aren't yet cluttered with thoughts - they only know how to deal with what is right in front of them at the moment. This sounds too simple but look at what happens when you bring a newborn baby into a room. Everyone's attention shifts to the baby. People start to smile and forget about their own problems for a few minutes. The baby is not doing anything - just being there - yet everyone around feels a little better.

This demonstrates the power presence has to make others feel more positive. High presence is our birthright, but it is also something we can easily lose sight of as the pace of business speeds up, our lives become increasingly complex and we take on more "responsibilities."

Now it is unrealistic to think that you can always operate without distractions, but you can at least start to be aware of distracting thoughts when they start to clutter your mind. One way to tell is that this is happening when people you are talking with start to get restless or when you see a glazed look in their eyes. When your attention wanders, so will theirs.

The good news is that simply becoming aware of the fact that you are distracted will start to put you back on track. When you notice that you are becoming distracted, just gently let go of whatever stray thoughts are in your head and bring your attention back to the task at hand. Your increased presence will make your audience feel better-served and bring more impact to your message.

We will continue this series by looking at several other aspects of human nature that most managers fail to understand. Until then, here are a few "homework" exercises that can help you increase your presence:

Notice how often you are distracted at work and at home.

Notice how you automatically start the process of self-correction towards greater presence just by being aware of becoming distracted.

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