Being present. It’s an expression that has gained a lot traction and popularity in the circles I travel. In basic terms it means giving one’s whole attention to the other and not being distracted by what is going on around her/him, solely focused on the person who is speaking. In spite of being a hyper lad I have always been blessed by the ability to focus so listening to the other comes relatively easy. The hard part for me is to resist finishing the other’s sentence. In the family where I grew up we all talked fast, thought fast and were good at reading the other’s intent, meaning we often could finish the other’s sentence before s/he did. There are at least two problems with that technique; 1) it is just plain rude and 2) you can be wrong and thus halt and interrupt the other’s flow of speech.
Learning not to jump in has been a challenge to me as a listener. I am fortunate that I don’t try to “one up” the other. Sitting in coffee shops you can hear the conversations, “my son has a very difficult learning disability”, which is often responded to with “well, my son has even more challenging learning disability.” And so on... But all of us have pieces of “being present” we need to improve upon.
When you speak to people who have carried worries, challenges and heart aches they will often say that a good listening ear made all the difference. The chance to talk it out is cathartic, it helps us work through what we are trying to do, it aids our thinking process and gives us a more refined and clear voice. And good listening is often “reflective listening”, meaning you repeat back to the other what s/he has said, giving her/him a more clear sense of what wisdom has already been gleaned. “Talking it out” is never to be underestimated. What the listener needs to be clear about is that allowing the other to “talk it out” is not the same as throwing gasoline on the fire”. Too often listeners take the posture of “egging the other on” which only makes matters worse.
I find assuming a more sensitive, compassionate tone is not the same as giving the other the impression you feel s/he needs to become even more aggrieved than s/he already is. That’s not to say the other may have very good reason to feel upset, angry, furious. But getting there should be what the other determines and a function of her/his own emotions, not the result of me throwing coals on the fire and watching the blaze light up the sky! Good listening hears the emotional context and stays with it, it does not accelerate or high jack it.
I want everyone I talk to who is struggling with something to feel I listened to the facts, that I cared and that s/he is free to call on me again. An important component in all three of these goals is remembering the story in the future and calling on him/her later to see how things stand. Follow up is often underrated as a means to good listening. It means you were “present” as you were able to remember the story and reach back to the conversation you shared a week or a month ago. People notice this and it has an effect on the quality of the relationship.
Despite being “hyper” I try as best as I can to settle myself in a groove of focus on the other, not myself, not what is going on in the room. The hardest part for me is trying to out of my mind what comes next. Today is today is today. That is the hardest part of being present for me.