Have you ever had a conversation with a dog?
The other day, I had a sarcastic conversation with my corgi along the lines of “aw, you have no idea what I am saying, but since I am saying it in an excited voice you think it’s important!” And my dog, not knowing any better, gave me her full attention. Her head was tilted, her ears perked up; surely there was something important in what I was saying.
When I was done talking, I wasn’t mocking my dog anymore. I was talking about how my day had been. About how it was good to be home. That I was hungry but didn’t know what I wanted to eat yet. And, even though I knew my dog understood none of what I had said, I felt listened to.
That is the power of being present. It tells others that you are paying attention. That you are engaged. That you care. Being present is a gift you can give.
When you are being present, you don’t have to understand everything that is being said. You can use what you don’t understand as an opportunity to learn more from the other person and help you gain an understanding. Being present is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
Barriers to Being Present
I find myself sometimes being guilty of being somewhat present instead of completely present. Just because our physical bodies might be in one location, that doesn’t mean our mind is there as well. There are three common barriers to being present:
- Trying to Multitask,
- Other important issues on the mind, and
- Not wanting to be present.
Trying to Multitask
Have you ever felt the urge to check your phone during a meeting? Or write an email while on a conference call?
We can multitask effectively up to a certain point. But multitasking can become a distraction and signal to others that something else on our mind is more important than them.
When the barrier to being present is multitasking then the solution is to encourage single-tasking. When we feel the allure of multitasking, we can be mindful of it and call ourselves out on that temptation. By recognizing the allure of multitasking we can refocus on a single task at a time.
When others are being tempted by multitasking, we can address it is by creating an environment that encourages people to single-task. For example, in a meeting people might put their phones in one location, thereby removing the distraction of using them. Or, meetings might have scheduled breaks to allow people to check phones, use the washroom, get some coffee, etc.
By encouraging single-tasking we can help ourselves, and others, break free from the allure of multitasking.
Other Important Issues on the Mind
Have you ever found yourself distracted by more important issues?
This barrier to being present is very similar to trying to multitask, except multitasking is a conscious choice and having other important issues on the mind is not. Other important issues can simply barge into our mental space and draw us away to other thoughts. Having unrelated thoughts pop into our mind is nothing unusual, and can help with being creative, but when those thoughts begin to create distractions and draw us away from where we need to be then that is when they can become problematic.
When other important issues are creating a barrier for use to be present, we can be mindful of those issues and decide to either 1) acknowledge them and focus on the topic at hand, or 2) reschedule for a better time. If the latter isn’t an option, then sometimes we need to rely upon the former to get us present enough to get what needs to be done, done.
When someone else is dealing with other important issues we can use that as an opportunity to be present for them. Sometimes people find it hard to listen when they also need to be listened to. If they want to talk about what is drawing their attention away, that discussion can help clear their mind to then talk about what we need to discuss. And if they don’t want to talk about it, leaving the door open for them to discuss it can help them refocus on the topic that is at hand. If the distractions can’t be overcome, then rescheduling to another place and/or time can sometimes be effective.
Not Wanting to be Present
Have you ever been in a meeting that you simply hated and couldn’t wait to get out of?
Sometimes we just don’t want to be present. And if we bottle up the desire to disengage, not wanting to be present becomes an important issue that further distracts us. Fortunately, we can control our response to not wanting to be present. When we don’t want to be present we can choose to either stay or disengage:
- Stay, and find ways to encourage our presence (whether by staying quiet and focusing on what is important, or by bringing the issue up), or
- Choose to disengage in a manner that fosters later opportunities.
When someone else does not want to be present, we cannot force them to want to be present. When this is the case, their options are the same as our options above: we can give that person the chance to talk about why they’d rather not be present, and the option to leave if they need to. The first option gives them the chance to start becoming present. The second option leaves the door open for them to come back later when they are ready. However, when we attempt to force someone to be present, when being present is the problem, that forced presence can manifest as a negative one.
The Right Time and Place to Address Presence
We must make sure we choose the right time and the right place to address when people are not completely present. When done correctly, we can help cultivate a positive presence. When done poorly, we can instead create a destructive presence. In other words, the present is not always the right time to address presence.
For example, imagine we are leading a group meeting and we notice a coworker doesn’t seem to be entirely present. They’ve checked their phone several times, they seem withdrawn from the meeting, and haven’t said a single word since the meeting began.
Now, we could call that person out in front of everyone: “put the phone down already! If you check that one more time, I’m taking it from you!” But, would that be productive for creating a positive presence? Calling that person out in front of everyone might make them look bad. And what would everyone else think of us calling that person out? Now, if done properly in a group setting this can help improve the group’s dynamics, but when done poorly that person will feel singled out, and resent you for it.
Furthermore, that person might simply be distracted because their favorite team is playing, and they are trying to follow the game. Or, they might have a relative that is ill, and they are waiting for updates on their well-being. It’s hard to know why people aren’t completely present, and discussing why isn’t always best in front of more than just two people: you and that person.
Instead, we could invite that person to become present. In the meeting we could ask them about their thoughts on certain topics, and involve their input. Sometimes inviting someone to engage is enough to get them to engage. Afterwards, we could then take additional steps to address the lack of presence, choosing both a better time and place for that conversation.
Finally, circumstances sometimes dictate that a minimum level of presence is required. When someone cannot be fully present, if we can help them be present enough to get what must be done, done, then that can be good enough. The goal in these situations is to help that person meet the minimum level of presence required, and then encourage greater presence in the future.
When we are present, we gain valuable opportunities to learn information, build relationships, and make good decisions. And when we aren’t present, we put ourselves at risk for missing important details, and lose the opportunity to show others that we accept them and appreciate their presence.
So, the next time you find yourself, or someone else, being tempted by multitasking, being distracted by something else, or just not wanting to be present, you have the power to encourage greater presence. Whether that is in the now, or in the future, is up to you.