In the yoga community, we love to talk about being present. Be present. Be aware. Be in the moment. These are things we say a lot, but what does it mean? I learned the answer in an unexpected way at my old job as a project manager.
So, there I was, 25 years old and learning to be a project manager. I was the only female in the company, the youngest employee, the only white person, and the only one with a liberal arts background. It was a highly educational situation, and also quite challenging at times. As a project manager, I needed my coworkers to be on my side, and even though I thought of them as my equals (and frankly as my superiors in some ways), I needed their respect.
Some people were easy to work with and happy to help get the job done. Some other folks, however, let their pride and biases get in the way of a functional working relationship, and it fell on my shoulders to straighten them out.
One guy, Neal, figured out that I was a bit of a pushover, being young and naive and all. Neal was a charming, good looking guy with a booming voice and intimidating presence. He could also look you right in the eye and lie to you with a smile. People like him are dangerous to people like me. Or rather, to people like I used to be. I had a tendency to just shut up when he and my boss were talking, and as long as he and I were on friendly terms, that didn’t cause any problems.
But as the project manager, I was given some authority over Neal — just a little — and he didn’t like it. Rather than cooperate to make a project schedule that worked for everyone, he would disregard the project plan and then tell our boss that I had screwed up, misinformed him, or forgotten some key component. I learned to cover myself by putting everything in writing and CC’ing my boss on every email. That went a long way toward protecting me, but it felt lame, like I was a little kid who had to be watched over by daddy at all times. I wanted to be respected on my own rather, not thought of as a tattle tale!
That’s when I learned how to be present. Powerfully present. That’s when I learned to really take up space in a room, assert myself, and be part of the conversation.
I used to sit and wait for my turn to speak. I would space out while listening to other people talk. I deferred all installation-related decisions to the installers on the assumption that they knew better than I did. I did not insert myself into the conversation. But one day my boss called a meeting with Neal and me, and he wanted to hear our project plan. I knew what was going to happen. Neal would shrug unhelpfully, our boss would intervene and come up with a plan of his own, and I would jot it all down and play the little gopher girl, doing things how they said, even though I knew it was an ineffective plan.
This time, I decided not to let it go down that way. This time, when we sat down to talk, the three of us in a little triangle of ugly office chairs, I could practically feel the energy of the conversation weighing heavily between the two of them, and nothing on my side of the room. I added my energy to the conversation. I opened my eyes a little wider, sat forward in my chair, leaned into the space between us and was a participant rather than a spectator. My boss asked the question: What’s your plan?
Without hesitation, I jumped in an presented my suggestions. I had a basic timeline, I needed some details from the installation team, I requested a bill of materials from the engineering team, and I was waiting on a call back from some of our partners. My boss seemed quietly satisfied with my answer.
As for Neal? He didn’t have much to say. He objected briefly to the timeline I put forward, but our boss said simply, “Why not? Of course you can do it.” When he couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse, we went with my plan.
The project went beautifully, if I may say so myself. And that’s how the rest of my projects went. I collaborated with people from our various partner companies and internal teams. I never had to force anyone to do things my way, and I never made all the decisions, nor did I want to. But I never got steam rolled again. Once I refused to be his scapegoat, Neal was unable to keep fooling everyone else.
That meeting was when I stopped being an office girl and started being a stellar project manager. Later, my boss would say, “I don’t know what changed, but you really turned around over the past year.” I think he thought I suddenly found meaning in the work and discovered some previously unknown loyalty to the company. Nah, I just got tired of being pushed around and feeling sorry for myself.
That day, I learned that being present isn’t just a matter of sitting and listening. Being present is about being fully engaged in your life. For me, being present meant being heard and taking part in decisions rather than letting others steer my ship. Being present turned the tables on people like Neal and made me the dangerous one, and I liked it.