Genius Catalyst: Being With

By Michael Neill

The charisma connection.
by Michael Neil
There is a famous story about Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortensen) walking in New York City with a friend. When her friend commented on how wonderful it was that she was able to maintain her anonymity in public, Marilyn said “that’s because I’m walking as ‘Norma Jeane’—if I walked as Marilyn, everyone would notice me.” Her friend, disbelieving, encouraged her to show her what she meant.

In that moment, Norma Jeane transformed herself into Marilyn Monroe, the movie star. An energy began to radiate from her and within moments, she was surrounded by autograph-seeking fans.

So what happened? What was the seemingly magical shift that turned an anonymous woman into a movie star in a matter of minutes?

The answer is often referred to as charisma or star quality. In more practical terms, we can call it presence. It is the “it” factor that producers look for in nearly every performer they are considering signing to a contract and unleashing on the world. And it can, in my experience, be developed in pretty much anyone, simply by learning and developing the skill of “being with.”

Patsy Rodenburg is a voice and acting teacher who, along with working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre in London, taught voice while I was in the professional actor training program at Southern Methodist University in Texas. In her new book, “The Second Circle,” she describes this phenomenon in relation to three circles.

The first circle is the circle of introspection—the place where your energy barely extends beyond the bounds of your own body. Here, your focus is inward and you are most likely to be lost in thought, listening to that voice inside your head even while life is going on around you.

The third circle is the circle of aggression—the place where your energy becomes a weapon used to charm, bully, or otherwise intrude your will onto those around you. It also serves as a shield, creating a moat around the castle of your being which is often impenetrable even by those you wish to invite inside.

The second circle is the circle of connection—your energy goes out but it also comes back in. This is the circle of “being with”—whatever you are truly connected with is what you are present to, and if this is another human being or group of human beings, they will be as fascinated by your very presence as you become with theirs.

I experience this all the time with audiences when I teach—I somehow manage to fall in love with a room full of strangers simply because I am “being with” them in as naked and honest a way as I know how to be. When I don’t— because I am too nervous or too confident or too distracted —I can still bluster my way through a talk in third circle, but the intimacy, magic and connection is lost. Speaking becomes a job, and while an audience may still enjoy what I have to say, their experience of what I have to offer will be a considerably more limited one.

This quality of connection makes romantic love so intoxicating and allows new parents to stare into their baby’s eyes for hours on end. To simply be with anyone or anything in a state of full presence is one of the most magical gifts we are given in our lives, and one that few of us fully receive because we think we play no part in its arrival.

Today’s experiment is based on the work of Lee Glickstein, creator of the wonderful “Speaking Circles” program which is, in my opinion, the most useful and potentially life changing program available for anyone wanting to become more comfortable with themselves in public. (I’ve never met Lee and have no affiliation with the program—you can learn more at….)


1. Take a few moments to center yourself. Notice your breathing, eyes closed, and simply be with yourself.

2. Now open your eyes and choose any object in the space you are currently in. Take a minute or so to “be with” that object—that is, allow yourself to become fully present to that object, as if it were the most important thing in the world. One way to do this is by what Patsy Rodenburg calls “breathing to it.” Imagine you are reaching out directly to the object with your breath. When you get the hang of this, you’ll feel a sense of being completely present with it—as though both you and the object are connected in some way.

3. When you are familiar with what it feels like to “be with” an object, try it with a friend (or in a pinch, a beloved pet!). Just take a couple of moments to center yourself, and then simply “be with” one another, without words and without effort. Don’t worry if it feels awkward or uncomfortable at first—you’ll get past that and the sweet feeling of connection you’ll get to will be completely worth it!

4. Finally, allow yourself to experiment with what it’s like to “be with” the rest of the people who are in your world. No formal exercise here —as you get used to practicing being fully present with others, it will naturally begin to infuse your relationships and enhance your presence in the world.

Remember, you don’t have to “be with” everyone—but isn’t it nice to know that you could?

 Have fun, learn heaps, and happy connecting!

Michael Neill is a life coach and author. Hear him Thursdays at 11am on HayHouse Radio or visit his website, (c) 2008.0

This article was originally published on March 7, 2008.