On Presence and Power: Susan Cain Interviews Amy Cuddy

Quiet Revolution’s Quiet Leadership Institute is so excited to help spread the word about QLI Advisory Board member Amy Cuddy’s new book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Susan Cain, Quiet Revolution’s founder, conducted a livestreamed interview with Amy at New York’s historic 92Y to discuss what presence means and why it’s so important in work and life. Susan and Amy covered a variety of topics that will resonate with quiet colleagues, including how to manage fearful or challenging situations, how to harness personal power, and how to stay present during conflicts.

Below are some key excerpts from the discussion and the entire recording is available here. It’s well worth a listen (or two!).

Susan: Can you define what you mean by presence?

Amy: The way that I see presence is that it’s the state of being attuned and able to comfortably express your true self — your values, your beliefs, your skills, your passions. To be attuned to them and able to deliver them — especially under pressure — that’s presence.

Susan: It seems that there are people who are born with a magical property that gets called “presence.” What do you think about that so-called “magical quality”?

Amy: I don’t think it’s quite the same as presence — I think it’s something we would call charisma. Charisma seems to be more about the intoxicating quality you have on other people. Presence is more about the self in relation to others. It’s less about how others see you and more about how you see yourself.

Susan: Do you feel an extra pressure to model the quality of presence? What is that like for you?

Amy: Yes, I do. I was at an interview and I was not doing well. I was really having trouble concentrating. I felt like they must have such high expectations of me and I had to say, “I’m so sorry — we have to do this another day. I am really not present with you right now. I can’t give you my all.”

Susan: In telling that story, you just gave a tremendous gift. It’s okay to say “I can’t be present right now, but I can be later.”

Amy: That gets at a theme that really surprised me. People would write about a stressful situation and they weren’t talking about the concrete outcome. They were talking about how they felt when they left the situation. The theme was regret or satisfaction. That’s what people cared about. Did I represent myself fully? Did I show them who I really am? Did I feel seen and understood? People can accept negative outcomes as long as they feel they represented themselves and the process was fair.

Susan: What’s your advice to somebody who is in a place right now where they are feeling fearful? How do they go from that place to a place where they are present with their whole selves?

Amy: This may seem small, but it’s really important: realize that everyone has felt this way and half the world is feeling this way right now. You’re not alone.

Second is to affirm your core values. List five things that are really core to who you are; rank them; choose the top one and write about why it matters to you; and write about a time when you were really able to express that and how it felt. That’s called self-affirmation. It’s what you care about. Self-affirmation has been shown in hundreds of studies to reduce people’s social anxiety dramatically. When you do that stressful thing, you know that whatever the outcome you’re still you. You feel more grounded, you feel less judged, and you become better at whatever the challenge is.

And third — the body is so linked to the mind. If you start to understand how that’s working, you can have your body tell you how you’re feeling. You’re not being chased by a predator — you’re just a little stressed out. Opening up and acting as if you’re not feeling threatened — you’re feeling safe — tells the mind you’re okay.

Susan: I’m going to read a quote from you, from your book, that I found fascinating. “Powerlessness is at least as likely to corrupt as power is.” That’s intriguing.

Amy: When you say “power” most of us think about social power — power over others. It’s not about the self — it’s about power over other people. The kind of power I’m talking about is personal power. Personal power is controlling access to the resources you possess internally. It seems as if you should be able to access those easily, but in some ways it’s harder especially when you feel scared. I think when people feel personally powerless, they act out or become destructive.

Personal power is infinite. It allows you to comfortably be in situations where you might get pushback, but you’re okay because you know who you are.

Susan: What are one or two of the most powerful shifts we can make?

Amy: We spend more time slouched and slumped, wrapping ourselves up and hiding ourselves, than we do open and expansive and taking up space and using proud postures. Your mind is hearing from your body that you are under attack. Don’t let your body tell you that. Just sit up straight. Set up your workspace so you have to reach a little bit. Put pictures of your family and people that you love high up on your wall so you have to look up. Get up and walk. If you’re a fetal sleeper, when you wake up, stretch your arms out before you put your feet on the ground.

The other idea is that before you walk into challenging situations, expand as much as you want. If you’re alone, you’re not offending anyone. So why not be as expansive as you can possibly be? When you walk into that situation, you have optimized your brain to not see it as a threat, but to see it as an opportunity. You walk in with a sense of confidence and security, instead of that sense of fear.

Susan: How do you stay present in moments of conflict and address issues in the moment?

Amy: Conflict is definitely a challenge — to go into it knowing you might not win. When you walk into situations that have a lot of conflict in them, maybe the first thing to do is to be present enough to allow the other person to speak first. To ask them how they’re feeling. Can they explain what’s going on from their perspective? You’re not giving power away — you’re actually allowing them to feel seen and understood.

When you respond in a moment of anger, you are not going to respond well. If you let them get through it, you’re going to get more information. Maybe then you pause and say “I need to step away from this for a minute.”

Completely intrigued, as we were? Want to hear more? Listen to the entire conversation here.

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