Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and then realized that you’re not actually paying attention to what is being said? Perhaps you’ve drifted off to follow some thought squirrel that has decided challenge your intellectual consistency over something you read four years ago. As you ponder the significance of stability within the recipe for ketchup, you suddenly realize you’re not present in the conversation. Now your mind snaps back in to engage the conversation again. As you struggle to re-engage with the friend who has been patiently awaiting your response, you suddenly realize that you’ve missed the last several minutes of discussion. Frustrated and slightly annoyed, you consider your options.
Option one: continue to try and fake it through the conversation.
Option two: make an excuse to end the conversation abruptly and flee from your friend.
Option three: admit you have not been present and ask them to repeat themselves.
Being present is not always easy. Sometimes we’ve been drained of intellectual stimulus for so long that it is nearly impossible for us to focus on anything other than the thought spirals that are flying through our minds. Sometimes we’ve been deprived of human interaction (or adult interaction) that we simply cannot hold the floodgates closed and our minds just race without hope of stopping. And sometimes, just sometimes, we don’t care about the conversation we are in. None of these are valid reasons for not being present. Don’t get me wrong! Being present is hard. It takes effort to care for the concerns of other people and to lay your own cards down in effort to love and listen well. But we must be present if we are to love well.
Here are three short things to do in order to maintain presence in a conversation.
- Lead the questions. If you ask the questions, you are less likely to drift away from the answer. So, ask questions that matter. Try to stay away from short answer questions that lack specifics. Instead of asking how someone is doing, ask “what are you most excited about in the next month?” Instead of asking “What’s been going on?” Ask, “What is something you’ve learned recently that has really shifted your thinking?” Then ask good follow-up questions that can help progress the conversation. A good conversationalist will be able to ask questions that lead to more valuable topics of discussion. So start practicing. Start asking questions that matter. Invest yourself in others by asking good questions.
- Get better sleep. Without a doubt, I am awful at tracking with a conversation or a person when I don’t sleep well. I have a naturally nervous mind and I am a relatively anxious person. Now I’m a pastor… so I spend a good bit of time trying to talk with people. If I am not rested, I can go a whole conversation and miss 60% of what is said. The person begins to talk and I begin to drift off into a form of contemplation of some theological reality I wrestled with years ago. Once this has happened, it is nearly impossible to catch up with the conversation. The greater my exhaustion the weaker my ability to focus. One easy way to remedy this is to take a nap before you go to meet with someone. About two hours before your meeting, take a thirty-minute nap. That way you’ll have plenty of time to wake up and more energy to focus when in the meeting.
- Write down the needs and prayer concerns of others. Perhaps the root issue of your lack of presence is a genuine lack of compassion. It’s ok to lack compassion. Compassion is something that you cultivate over a long period of time. So you should make strides to develop it. One way I have learned to do this is through prayer journaling. As I talk with people about their needs, I often take notes on my phone. When I get home, I transfer those to a prayer journal. The next time I meet with that person I have been developing compassion for them and it is much easier for me to be present with them.
Is there anything specific you do to be present? Put it in the comments.