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Three Ways to Be More Present in Relationships

How to give the gift of presence this holiday season and beyond

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Source: Image by John Hain from Pixabay

If you are thinking about gift giving at this holiday season, you might try the gift of presence.

Consider this story: About seven years ago I was driving through New Hampshire and we stopped at a small restaurant to eat. Sitting nearby our table was a man and what appeared to be his young daughter, maybe five years old or so. It was a very ordinary scene, yet something captivated me about the two of them, and I kept glancing over. The more I watched the more extraordinary it felt, and I finally figured out why. The little girl was talking as little girls do but this man was completely present. He wasn’t glancing at his phone. He wasn’t half listening or dismissing her childish chatter. His attention was 100% on her, as if every word she said truly mattered. His presence was palpable. It was the kind of connection between two people that is (sadly) rare to see.

The Challenge of Our Wandering Mind

As human beings we all long to be seen and heard by another. Yet often, when we are with others, our minds are distracted. We might be half listening while we think about something we have to do, or something we want to say in the conversation; we might be partially caught in our own thought stream, or our own agenda. This is not entirely our fault. We have a brain that likes to wander, and it does so frequently — to the past, to the future, and to self-referential thinking. There is even a name for this interconnected series of cortical regions in the brain responsible for this, referred to as the default mode network, because this mind wandering is what our brain defaults to when we are not focused on a task at hand. Nonetheless, with some practice, we can learn to be more present with others in ways that can benefit both people. Here are three suggestions to try:

Three Ways to Be More Present

1. Ask the person to tell you more. It sounds simple, but many people don’t do this in conversations. They are focused more on what they want to say or share. Pause and really take in what the other person is saying and be curious about what is most important to them. Listen for what they are saying – both verbally and non-verbally. Then ask them to share more with you. For example:

“You sound excited about that project. Tell me more about that.”

“ You seem worried – do you want to share more about that?”

“ That sounds interesting, I’d love to hear more.”

2. Be like a mirror and reflect back the most important points of what you are hearing, in a caring way. This lets the other person know that you are truly listening and taking in what they are saying. It often feels supportive to the other person when one can do this. Consider these examples:

Child: It isn’t fair. Everybody else gets to play their video games as much as they want and I’m the only kid in town whose parents are putting limits on how much I can play.

Parent: I can hear how angry you are about this. It’s really difficult when our family has rules that some of your other friends don’t have.

Co-worker: This project has completely consumed me. And now I am getting pressure from our boss to take on even more work, and I’ve already got these deadlines that I am barely going to be able to meet. I don’t know what I am going to do!

You: It sounds like you are under a lot of stress and that it feels hard to even come up for air right now. How can I support you?

Friend: I’m really excited that I have this opportunity to chair this committee that I’ve been part of for the past 10 years. I have so many ideas about what I’d like to do, and I think this will be a great chance to network with more people and have an impact on some of the issues that I really care about.

You: You’ve put a lot of time and energy into this over the years and what a great opportunity for you to be in charge of something that matters so much to you. How wonderful!

3. Say absolutely nothing – for 5 minutes. Now, I am not suggesting you do this in the course of a normal conversation, but instead, intentionally set up a time with a friend or family member where you will offer them this gift of presence (and see if they will do the same for you). Take turns and give each person five minutes to talk while the other person is silent, but focused, attentive and present, listening in an open and curious way. Often we might want to jump in, offer advice, tell how what they are saying relates to us, etc. — but don’t do any of that. Just listen with an open heart and mind. Before you dismiss this as sounding too strange or crazy, consider this.

Over the past year I was part of a mindfulness course where we broke off into smaller groups (online on Zoom) once a month. In those smaller groups we would each have an opportunity to go around and share about anything on our minds – about the course, about meditation, about our lives. Everyone else was completely silent but present. No one offered advice. No one commented on what the person was sharing. They simply listened and offered their presence. Whenever it was my turn to speak it was truly a gift to have this safe space to share and be seen and heard in this way. So simple, and yet, so powerful. I have recently started doing this with my husband — taking five minutes or so each and just listening silently while the other shares. There is a surprising feeling of connection in doing this that goes beyond our usual conversations.

So this holiday season go ahead — buy those gifts for the holidays for those you care about — but most of all, consider giving the gift of your presence. It may be the greatest gift of all.

More from Beth Kurland Ph.D.
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