What does it mean to be present?
Is it making eye contact with another person? Looking attentively when they are speaking? Listening to their words and responding accordingly? I believe it’s these things and so much more. Being present is born out of being mindful. So, where does being mindful come from? Are we born with mindfulness? Some would say we are and then we get it conditioned out of us through societal norms. If you watch children playing together, they may not always be looking at each other, but there is a sense of being present. They are in the moment with that other child, listening, responding, acknowledging and being present.
I recently contributed a chapter to a compilation book, Ignite Your Life for Conscious Leaders about a time when I introduced meditation to a team I was leading. While the meditation certainly helped with stress management, I found there was a wider, unexpected effect that had an even bigger impact on their success and those they interacted with throughout their day. That effect is what I call mindfulness. It can be described as having an awareness of self (yours and others) and being present in all that you are and all that you do. This may sound ‘woo woo’, but the reality is it takes small, simple steps to become more mindful and the impact is exponentially greater than the effort.
Being present does require an element of discipline. There are many tools and techniques that I’ve found that can be employed to bring more mindfulness and presence into daily activities. There is the act of counting to 100 as you chew a mouthful of food. This allows you to be fully present while you ingest nutrition for your body. Meditation, as I shared earlier, brings about a sense of mindfulness. Of feeling connected at a greater level then just being here physically. Walking in nature can help you to feel more connected and grounded so you can be more present when working indoors. And given our hyperconnected world, there is the option to disconnect or at least deprioritize our attachment to our electronic interruptions. This in itself provides us with the opportunity be more present in our interactions with other humans – regardless of whether they are work colleagues, acquaintances, family or friends, being present shows that you respect yourself and them.
While counting to 100 with every mouthful of food may sound daunting, it could in fact be much easier to implement then the other techniques I outlined above. However, it may also take 1.5 hours to get through a meal and therefore may not be practical for most people. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on removing distractions – especially when you’re interacting with others. When I worked in an office, we had an open-door policy, this meant staff could bring anything up to their managers and there would be no repercussions. I took this one step further and left my actual door open most of the time. This was an open invitation to interruptions. One time when working on an executive report with looming deadlines, I had a staff member stop by and ask if I had a moment to chat. My initial thought was to respond with a definitive ‘NO’. However, I looked up and in that moment, I could tell there was something more to the discussion then a casual ‘chat’. I had a choice to make. There were several responses I could give:
- Politely ask them to schedule a time in my calendar where we are both available.
- Invite them in and immediately put aside what I was working on with the potential outcome being I miss my deadline.
- Invite them in and continue working on the report while they talk to me
- Ask them to give me a minute to finish my thought, then ask them the nature of the discussion. If it’s urgent, then ask them to sit down so we can chat letting them know how much time I have. Or if it’s not urgent, then check my calendar and give them a time that we can meet so that I can be focused and available to them.
Let’s unpack this a bit more.
Response one: Puts the responsibility on the employee to find a time in the calendars. It also sends a message that says your needs are not as important as mine.
Response two: Acknowledges the employee but does not respect your own time and deadlines. By taking this approach you might be hearing them, but your mind will be on the report and the deadline that you need to hit.
Response three: Might allow them to discuss their situation, but you are not really listening to them. You are only hearing them. This also sends a message of non-importance.
Response four: This approach allows you as the manager to first understand what the situation is, therefore acknowledging the employee and respecting their decision to come to you with their situation. By understanding the urgency, you can make a judgement call on whether it is something that needs to be addressed immediately or if it can wait until you have time to dedicate to actively listening to them.
The fourth approach shows respect for the employee as well as yourself. It also shows the employee that you care about them and are willing to put aside important tasks when needed. And finally, it shows that you want to be fully present with them when discussing their situation and therefore meeting their needs.
The need for being present in our face to face interactions is increasing in importance mainly due to the multitude of distractions that we are bombarded with on a regular basis. How many times do you check social media when you’re working on something else? “Did Sally Sue see my post? I tagged her on it, and she hasn’t responded yet. I wonder what she’ll say. I wonder what Trent is posting. He always has really funny posts.” All of these thoughts are distractions and keeping you from being present in what you’re actually doing. Whether it’s writing a blog post, completing a report for work or reading your latest novel, having constant interruptions can be very draining and makes for poor interactions with others in real life.
When was the last time you went to dinner with friends where someone didn’t pull out their phone to either take a picture, check-in to the restaurant or simply check social media? How much of the conversation revolved around social media and the latest trends or most ridiculous thing you’ve seen recently? How much of the conversation is actually between the individuals at the table with no social media content: whether its fact checking, checking in and tagging, or posting photos of the evening?
To be more present, I challenge you to turn your phone off or at least to Do Not Disturb (of course make sure you’ve set up your babysitter/pet sitter as a favorite so they can still contact you in an emergency). This simple step – being present – can change the entire energy of a situation or conversation. You not only respect your time; you also respect those who are sharing the event with you. If at work, I encourage you to acknowledge the person’s need, evaluate the urgency and respect your own needs so that when you do speak with them, you can be fully present.