I sent my husband a text the other day by speaking into the phone as usual, and right before I sent it, I glanced at it to make sure it was comprehensible. What I saw actually took me by surprise. I was sending him a message saying, “I got you the best presents for Christmas,” and I noticed that the voice recognition message had printed, “I got you the best presence for Christmas.”
Most of us are so busy during the holidays (or ever) that presence is the last thing on our minds. The concept of presence in interpersonal relationships implies intentionally focusing on the other person and really being with them.
When Mitch Albom wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, about his experiences with a former university professor who was afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he explained how Morrie Schwartz taught him by example how to be present. He wrote, “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world.” Morrie himself said, “I believe in being fully present…That means you should be WITH the person you’re with.”
One of the things I love about being a therapist is that I share a very well-defined space and time with another set of individuals. This allows me to focus all of my attention on those people during that time with no other distractions. It’s easy to be present in those situations.
Exercising that kind of presence at home with the multiple demands on my time is a different story. I understand how difficult it can be to be present. I am by nature a fairly hurried person. I became very aware of this on our last family vacation when we were visiting various places. I routinely end up walking alone tens of yards in front of everyone. My family is endlessly amused by this. I think it’s a habit I picked up from trying to keep up with my mother when I was young. She was also a very fast walker, and I seem to have a lot of the same nervous energy she possessed. I am also a relentless multi-tasker, which makes it very difficult to slow down and focus on one thing.
The other night, I was on my computer, and my husband walked in and said something to me, put something next to me with a flourish, and while I was staring at my screen and typing, I was mumbling, “OK, thanks, Hon,” not paying any attention at all. I was vaguely aware that he blew me a kiss before walking out the door. It wasn’t until after he left that I looked down and saw that he had brought me something with almond butter that he had spread in the shape of a heart. As I looked at it, the words he had used echoed in my mind and this time I paid attention. He had walked in and said, “Notice that I spread this in a heart shape to show my love for my beautiful bride,” and then he blew me a kiss even after I was completely dismissive and inattentive to him.
This time, I was able to correct the interaction because I noticed. I called him back in and apologized that I had been so inattentive when he had put forth effort for me. Unfortunately, that was the exception. Most of us can benefit by trying to increase our presence in our familial relationships.
Here are some ideas to increase your presence with family members:
- Slow down and breathe. You can’t be present if you are hurried. This is hard for me. When I’m trying to slow down, I often purposely breathe to stay focused and keep my mind from racing. If I get distracted, I can breathe and return to the immediate conversation.
- Put down your electronic devices. Sit on your hands if you have to. The other day, I heard my daughter say, “Hello! I am trying to have a conversation with an actual human…and also, did you know that you are messing up your melatonin levels by staring at that little screen and it’s going to be harder for you to sleep tonight?” (Thank you, medical anatomy). When I explained that I did know that, which was why I had a store of melatonin in the medicine cabinet, I earned another lecture on the pitfalls of artificially altering my hormone levels, blah blah blah, which made me want to look at my phone more. I realized that as long as I had my phone in my hand, I kept getting distracted by other things I “had to do,” and I kept returning to the alluring siren’s song of the cell phone during the gaps in our conversation. Shame on me! My teenage daughter actually wanted to talk to me, and I was dismissing her.
- Make eye contact. Eye contact is so simple, yet it is powerful. Many couples in therapy have a very difficult time making eye contact because it is so connecting, and they often feel vulnerable in the process. Eye contact improves empathy.
- Be curious. Be a detective of what it’s like to be the other person in front of you. What are they really experiencing? Have there been times when you have felt that same way? What are they trying to tell you? If you communicate that you really want to understand, and it feels authentic, people will usually disclose more.
- Check in with the Other Person. By this I mean authentically reflecting back key points of the conversation to make sure you are really understanding correctly. This isn’t so much a “communication skill,” as a way of being with someone. If you are faking it, your spouse can usually tell, and it will be ineffective.
- Figure out how to make Your Presence Helpful. Does this person need some kind of validation or support? If you don’t know what that is, communicate that you would like to know how to be helpful.
- Create time and space to be present. This seems obvious, but if it’s not scheduled in, I guarantee many other things will take your time, and it just won’t happen.
While I have been typing this, I have successfully dismissed a spouse and three of my seven children. Ironic, I know. The good news is that being present can start NOW if you want. Before you go to bed tonight, see if you can practice being really present for five minutes with a family member, and then notice whether it had any kind of immediate impact. Even though I’m still learning how to be present, I do believe it is one of the best presents you can give to a family member this season.
Now excuse me while I go check my email…..
Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson by Mitch Albom, 2007, Random House, LLC, Broadway Books.