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Being Present for yourself and others
Have you ever had this happen?
You are having a conversation with a friend and it feels like you are totally in-tune with each other? Not only are you feeling like they hear you, but you also feel like you are really hearing them as well? During the conversation neither of you are distracted, you don’t have a bunch of random thoughts running through your head, and you aren’t planning out what you are going to say next. Neither of you is steering the conversation and yet it feels like it is going exactly where it needs to go. From the outside, it might look just like any other conversation but for you, it is so much more.
What’s going on here? What is it about this interaction that is different from your other interactions with people?
It’s something called presence, and it’s a super-power that you can take advantage of during any situation.
What does ‘presence’ mean?
The dictionary defines presence as “the state or fact of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing,” but that doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on very much. I like the definition that this article uses more, which is “tuning in to immediate experience and engaging consciously.” That’s still pretty abstract, but it’s pointing in the right direction. So let’s unpack ‘presence’ a little more deeply.
What does it mean to ‘tune in to the immediate experience’? If we don’t overthink it, it’s pretty simple; paying attention to what’s going on right now. Let’s start with what presence is NOT.
During our most meaningful conversations, we are NOT
- thinking about what’s for lunch
- planning our route to the meeting we have to get to in 30 minutes
- counting how many hours of sleep we got last night
- wondering whether we paid the electric bill
- figuring out what we are going to say next
- looking for ways to one-up the other person or tell another one of our stories
- trying to get what we want out of the conversation
We aren’t doing those things because all of those are distractions from ‘being present’, and being present is what we are shooting for here. When we are present we not only hear what the person is saying, but we are able to understand what they are saying because we are picking up on their body language, hearing their intonation clearly, and empathizing with their experience. The reason that presence is so powerful is that we are doing all of that without the usual distractions that pull us out of the current moment and into our head.
So, what’s the ‘gift’ here?
Now that you’ve got a rough idea of what presence is – why does it matter? The answer here has lots of levels that we could explore, but I believe that the most important thing that we can recognize is that when we demonstrate presence we connect better. Without all of the distractions in our minds, we can be fully invested in the conversation with another person instead of only half-way in. We can see them, hear them, and feel them (not in a creepy, hand-on-their-thigh kind of way but feeling truly connected to them in our hearts).
This might seem bold, but I believe that what each of us wants most is to be recognized by others. We want to be seen, be heard, and feel connected to other humans. You see this regularly on social media. People post selfies and express themselves online in an attempt to be recognized. The problem is that we don’t have anybody being present with us on the other end, so we wait for likes and comments in order to feel some level of connection. This whole process depersonalizes the desire that we hold so deeply – to connect.
So when you are able to be present with somebody, when you are able to truly be with them without an agenda or distractions, you are giving them one of the most valuable gifts that we as humans can give each other – recognition. You are, in essence, saying ‘You are worth me putting distractions aside’.
This gift isn’t just to them though, and that’s the true beauty of presence – you get the gift as well. When you are present, naturally other people become more present as well which means that they are recognizing you more too. And because you aren’t distracted, because you are present, you are able to feel that recognition. It feels good.
Ways to Practice Presence
So how do you ‘do it’? How do you step into being more present with people? I think there are a couple of simple things you can do that, with practice, will get you walking down the path of presence:
Start with noticing now
The simplest place to start is now. As you read this just notice what thoughts are running through your head. If you are like most people then you have hundreds of thoughts racing through your head every few minutes. They are so constant that we forget they are even there. What are you thinking about as you try to pay attention to these words?
One of the most powerful practices in becoming present is to watch the thoughts in our minds instead of getting stuck thinking the thoughts. Sounds weird right? Yet it totally works. Here is a great article on the ‘observer’ mind phenomena which helps a lot of people to cultivate this skill.
Practice the same skill during conversations with others. Occasionally stop and observe what thoughts are going through your mind. What are the distractions that are coming up for you? What thoughts are pulling you away from being present with the other person?
Also, start to recognize your patterns. Most of us have specific thoughts, fears, and distractions that come up over and over again. Recognize that those patterns mean something. Your mind keeps going there because some part of you views those things as really important. Ignoring them only makes your brain worry about them more. As you identify what some of your common patterns are – bring those up with your coach, your therapist, or your accountabilibuddy. Work through them so that they become less of a distraction in future conversations.
Give yourself some grace
This type of practice can be very challenging, and all of us fail at it often. That’s okay. Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself a pat on the back for continuing to practice. After all – any additional presence you bring to the table, even if it’s only a few moments during a conversation, is a gift to the other person and to yourself. Focusing on the wins instead of the ‘failures’ allows you to stay motivated moving forward.
Now that you know what to do, go out there and give the gift of presence to the people you care about, to the people you don’t know yet, to the people who challenge you, and to yourself.