Last spring, I was having a “30,000 foot” conversation with a friend, sharing some of our mutual leadership and relational challenges. During the exchange, he shared a statement that resonated so strongly with me that it became a personal theme, a constant reminder that underscores an ongoing obstacle in my life:

I will be where I am… wherever I am.

This simple sentence is a definition of presence, which is the ability to give people the gift of your attention, the willingness to fully engage in every encounter–at every meal, every meeting, every conversation, every day.

The older I get, the more I realize how difficult this can be for me. I suffer from a distracted and overactive mind.

In an effort to improve, as I’ve unpacked this whole issue of presence, I’ve come to realize that being present starts with listening. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but in an increasingly distracted culture, listening is one of the most difficult skills to consistently practice. And yet, if you are serious about building a strong personal brand by consistently presenting the best version of yourself, learning to listen–really listen–is non-negotiable.

Presence: Listening and hearing are not the same.

Listening and hearing are not the same.

How many times have you been introduced to someone, and, within minutes, or even seconds, you forget their name? (Don’t tell me I’m the only one guilty of this!) How can that happen? After all, you clearly heard the name, right? The problem was that you may have heard it, but you weren’t listening. Chances are, your focus was on yourself and the impression you were making. Or your mind was absorbed in the meeting you were preparing for, the weekend plans you were looking forward to, or something else that occupied your thoughts at that moment.

Instances like this cause people to say things like, “I’m bad with names” when the truth is, you’re simply unskilled at the discipline of listening.

Whether this example resonates with you or not, the key is to understand that listening involves more than just hearing words directed at us. Listening is an active process by which we receive, assess, and respond to what we hear–and the benefits are huge. As Mary Schaller explains in The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations:

People are often ready to listen to us only after they feel understood and heard. In a society full of folks who would rather talk than listen, people are starved for someone who is willing to move into their lives as a listener and learner. Being known as a good listener will cause you to stand out in our self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of world.

The stakes are high.

In an earlier post, I shared that today more than ever we tend to live in echo chambers where everything we pay attention to only reinforces what we already believe. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans today are more polarized than perhaps any other period in our history. As a result, we are increasingly less likely to listen and learn from one another–at great potential cost to the health of our society.

In my upcoming posts, I will explore some proven skills to improve our listening, develop our sense of presence, and expand our capacity to present the best version of ourselves.

Are you listening?

How would you evaluate yourself as a listener? Are you, for example, comfortable with remembering names and noticing things? Does your mind tend to wander during conversations? Do you find it hard to concentrate in the midst of smartphones, social networking and other distractions? What would it mean to you and to the quality of your life if you could expand your sense of presence?