“Staying” present implies “being” present, so it feels important to start by understanding what being present is.  If you’re a Boomer like myself, you may remember classroom roll-call when your name was called and you raised your hand calling out “here” or “present!”   But, we all know too well that we can be physically present, but mentally, “out to lunch.” Our bodies are in the room, but our minds are somewhere else. Being physically present and basically showing up, is definitely a start to being present, but it’s not enough. Because we are much more than our physical bodies, being present must include your inner self showing up as well.

It is natural and human “to go away” or “go inside” and focus on one’s personal concerns rather than being and staying present to a conversation, discussion or Zoom meeting.  Minds wander and land on personal thoughts:  sometimes fleeting, sometimes creating unending thought loops.  Thinking about a friend’s birthday and what you want to send them; about your child’s health and whether or not to visit a doctor for that cough and sore throat during these pandemic times;  about financial concerns such as getting through the month – making mortgage and car payments, buying groceries, etc.

Our focus drifts because of both internal and external distractions. Our inner thoughts, physical states, beliefs, attitudes and emotions (i.e. fear, anxiety, sadness) pull us away from our best of intentions to listen and be present. External distractions like phone calls, family interruptions and technology glitches are magnets for compromised attention. While this has always been true for all types of communication — live conversations, meetings and presentations, now with work-from-home decrees and back to back Zoom meetings, our ability to be and stay present is for many, a major “stretch-assignment.”

Humans are also the “judging animal” and it is not unusual for people to justify their “going away” behavior. We fault the speaker, (that webinar was boring), the scheduling, (What? a 7AM meetingdon’t they have kids?)  or blame technology (Darn, the audio dropped out AGAIN).  And while these examples may indeed be the triggers for drifted focus, it’s still within our power to manage the ability to stay present. The ability to notice your drift, acknowledge it and then return to being present has value and helps build your personal and professional character, often referred to as presence or character.

So how do we as virtual meeting participants manage staying present?   How do we strengthen the “muscles” of attending, listening, staying interested, being patient, being as fully present as possible — especially while working from home with all its competing demands?

The answer has everything to do with commitment to self-awareness, will, and choice.

First, are you aware when you lose focus or are you lost in a daydream for the rest of the day, never to return to the “screen at hand”?  And, once aware, do you reel yourself in and re-commit to listening and staying present, or are you more likely to say, “This isn’t very important, I’ve got more pressing things to do,” or “There he is again, acting like he’s superior,” or “I’m getting a headache from all these boxes – I’m done!”   It’s important to recognize when you’ve “gone away,” because only then can you willfully make the choice to return to being present and committing to staying present.

When you return, then what?

Staying present often means “listening longer.”   Most adults assume that if they don’t have a hearing problem, that they listen “well enough.”  But listening is more complex than that and people don’t listen in the same way. Some listen for information, others to find holes in arguments, and others like to hear new ideas.

Additionally, our listening preferences have much to do with our individual learning styles. Some listeners listen better when they deflect their gaze or eliminate eye contact and listen best to “audio only” information, such as telephones, podcasts and radios provide. Others prefer a combination of seeing and hearing simultaneously, such as television, YouTube, face-to face interactions, or FaceTime, Skype or Zoom platforms.  And there are others who prefer to obtain their information from print, reading reports, books and online news.  In addition, some people learn best by being shown – this kinetic preference more difficult now during social isolation.  Knowing your preference for listening supports self-awareness and helps you to navigate the challenges of both live and virtual communications.

Your personal and professional presence is the sum total of all your experiences and the “invisibles” that collectively create character and charisma:  patience, strong listening, integrity, honesty, loyalty, transparency, compassion, empathy, courage, humility, intelligence, optimism.

Increasing your ability to recognize “drift,” to become more self-aware; exercising your will to choose to return, committing to being and staying present and extending your listening attention, grows your personal and professional presence.

Ask yourself at a start of a meeting what is competing for your attention.  Acknowledge that reality, tell that voice you will get back to it later, and have the intention to maintain attention.  With practice, your focus will improve and expand and contribute to enhancing your “human-being-ness.”