Intentional Attention: Insights from the cha cha cha

I took an aerobic dance class yesterday at my fitness center.  We were doing the cha cha cha and a series of steps with lot’s of turns.  Long ago as a modern dancer I was trained to “spot” when I turned, that is, to focus on one spot during a turn so that I could stay balanced and not get dizzy.  I found myself spotting yesterday as I was doing the cha cha  cha and after one particular turn the gift of my ability to spot left me with a moment of startling clarity.  The insight that came with that clarity was so compelling that I found it difficult to continue dancing for the rest of the class.

So, what was my insight?   When we have an intention to focus our attention in a particular way, we feel present, steady, grounded, clear.  And, this is true despite all the activity swirling around us.   The dance steps I was doing were fast paced.  The music was loud.  There were many other dancers in the room.  New steps were being presented continuously.  In turning, it could so easily have led to my feeling off balance.  But in the moment when I completed that one turn, with a clear focus on my spot, all the frenetic activity around me became still and I was momentarily simply THERE.

When we feel anxious, we often have a feeling that there’s too much swirling around us and we find ourselves in an ongoing state of imbalance.  This is particular true when we are doing an important presentation in the throes of a fear of public speaking.  In these moments, our mental state creates an experience of chaos and we feel out of control.

In those moments of high anxiety, the physiological stress response kicks in and we are thrown into survival mode.  One manifestation of that internal “fight or flight” state is that our eyes rapidly scan our environment as we become hypervigilant.

In a speaking situation this translates into what I call the “radar” scan – we continuously look around the room without really seeing anyone. To use my dance “spot” analogy, this is the equivalent of not focusing on anything when we turn, which leads to falling off balance and feeling dizzy. The net result of this experience is that we amplify the fear that was already there.

In my years as a public speaking presence coach, I have found that letting our gaze rest quietly on one person at a time as we speak (what some would call “eye contact”) with a conscious intention to truly see the person we are looking at, has the same effect as the “spot” has in a dance turn.  In a way that might seem quite paradoxical, this gentle focus of our attention on a single person at a time instead of the “crowd”, calms us down, steadies us, brings clarity in the moment, brings us into balance, keeps us from feeling dizzy, slows us down.

And, it has another benefit… Our audience feels invited in, included, important.  They feel attended to and so become more interested in what we have to say.

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