Picture this: You’re in a one-on-one at work, but your mind keeps racing back to a conversation you had moments before. You try to focus on your colleague, but just can’t seem to get past your inner thoughts. In a meeting, you’re so excited to contribute a thought or idea that you don’t hear the ideas already being exchanged. Or, you’re at home and your spouse is filling you in on their day, but you’re so tired you can barely keep up. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Staying present for others can be tough, but it’s worth the effort for the connection it brings.
Staying present is essential for empathetic listening to occur, the kind of listening where we are able to connect beyond the superficial, to a deeper, more meaningful, emotional level with others. When we are present, we are able to take in more information about our partner — what they are saying or even nonverbally suggesting— that lets us in on what they are actually feeling. In a group, we can begin to observe the power dynamics and subtle cues that indicate tacit agreement, confusion, and even the simmering tension beneath the surface that can later turn into disagreement. One-on-one, we can train our attention on the unique gestures, fleeting hesitations, and even the melody of what our conversation partner is saying. When we are attuned in this way, we are able to better grasp what our partner really needs. Our conversation partners, in turn, can feel our efforts—in the warmth of our attentiveness, the commitment to hearing them out, our dedication to staying with them despite other distractions—and respond in kind. In this way, staying present can help our conversation partners to feel cared for, valued, and tended to, which encourages them to share what’s on their mind.
When we are not present, we may make little progress on a problem, answer the wrong question, misinterpret our partner’s position, or risk making others feel rejected. We may also quickly make missteps, like jumping ahead and telling others what we think they want to hear, instead of hearing them out and truly getting to know them. Do this once and we miss an opportunity to understand our conversation partner; do this repeatedly and we begin to appear disinterested, unreliable, impatient, even dismissive. When this happens, our conversation partners may begin to hold back. As a result, our conversations can feel like a struggle, or even a grind, instead of an opportunity for connection.
There is no quicker way to end a conversation—or a relationship— than to appear distracted.
There are three skills that allow us to stay present as we listen, each of which builds upon the other and requires mindfulness, the ability to be aware of what is happening in a given moment.
Self-Awareness helps us know what each of us personally needs to stay present so that we can be there for others in conver- sation.
Trust allows us to stay in the moment and receive others with ease rather than worry we will forget something important or miss our conversation partner’s point.
Patience helps us to slow down our response and make space for others to finish their thoughts or take their time to process or sit with what’s been said.
When we bring awareness to our listening experience, we can also better manage our response if and when we do get off track. Understanding ourselves allows us to be there for others.
To bolster your self-awareness and rein in wandering thoughts to stay present, name what is happening.
NAME WHAT IS HAPPENING
The simple exercise of recognizing your experience for what it is—stress, distraction, concern over a previous conversation, or exhaustion from the day’s events—can help you come back to the present.
Psychologists call this practice labeling or naming: we specify the emotion we are feeling in order to more effectively manage it. When we articulate what is happening, we give ourselves a choice in how to respond. You can employ labeling for managing strong emotions in the moment, like when we are in the face of anxiety, and also for managing thoughts that are rote, neutral, or nonemotional, such as ruminating on a prior one-on-one, running through to-do lists, weighing possible dinner plans, or anything else that prevents you from being fully present while listening. If you notice your mind wandering, acknowledge this by naming what is happening. This can be as simple as saying to yourself: “There goes my mind wandering again” or “It looks like my thoughts are starting to run the show.” Then, send them off for good measure with a “Thanks for the visit, but you can go now” or “I am ready to move on” to help concentrate your attention back on your partner.Trust
Whether in a meeting, over dinner, at home, or in the office, many of our conversations come with a fear of missing out. Not the Instagram kind of FOMO but the kind where we worry that we’ll miss something important, whether it’s a detail our conversation partner mentions, a thought of our own that we believe is worth holding on to, or next steps from a meeting that are crucial to follow through on.
Trust helps us to quiet our impulse to do more than just be present. When we can embrace an attitude of trusting that what is important will remain with us— that no immediate action is necessary—we can stay calm and simply listen. As a result, our conversations go much further: we hear more of what actually matters because we are not weighed down by what could matter. To start, focus on understanding others’ emotions above all.
PINPOINT THE EMOTIONS
Rather than attempt to retain every word our partner says, we can aim to understand the gist, or overall idea, to help us stay present in conversation. That means letting distracting details go to make space for greater understanding. This is easier than it sounds, thanks to what is known as the verbatim effect of memory, so-called because it is much easier to remember the gist than it is to remember exact verbiage (the verbatim). Put another way, we naturally remember meaning better than details, and meaning, for our purposes, exists in empathy—in sensing the feelings, beliefs, and experiences of others. Luckily for us, the brain remembers emotions quite well— better than details.
You’ve likely experienced this yourself before; the more things resonate on a human or emotional level, the more likely you are to remember them. Marriage vows, political campaign promises, your company’s annual hiring plan—the details are much harder to retain (and often less crucial) than remembering the underlying emotion (that a friend is in love, that an acquaintance is excited by a particular candidate, that your CEO is worried about having enough resources). Similarly, when we can step back from the minutiae of a co-worker’s update on a project to see that they are over- whelmed, or get past the details of a sibling’s intense workweek to hear that they are stressed, we are not likely to forget our conversation. How someone feels is much harder to forget than the exact words they speak in the moment.
So cut yourself some slack, and don’t try too hard to memorize things word for word. Instead, you can trust your human heart and intuitive memory to help you remember what’s important.Patience
Patience helps us to make space for others to say what they need to say. Whether we are eager to contribute our ideas, striving toward efficiency, certain about how to proceed, feeling pressured to participate, or simply enthusiastic to connect, by giving others the space to express themselves, we not only get to know them better, but we are more likely to respond in a way that deepens the conversation. We may discover, for instance, that we can be most valuable as a sounding board, or most effective as a coach, guide, advocate, or even challenger of others’ ideas. We may find that our conversation partner has everything they need to come to their own conclusion, or, on the contrary, that they need more information to come to a decision. And in group settings, being patient allows us to take in a range of perspectives to inform our position, which helps us to collaborate better and come to the best decision for the group.
To practice patience in conversation, set an intention to wind down, not up.
WIND DOWN, NOT UP
Whenever a thought or possible response enters your mind, rather than weighing in immediately, simply observe it instead.
Christine Perry, a life coach and expert listener based in Silicon Valley, regularly brings mindfulness practices into her coaching. She encourages her clients to tune in to the present to help them build relationships and influence in the workplace. “Mindfulness is being present to what’s happening in the room,” she says. “Instead of being ready to be on the fence, or coming up with what we need to say, we’re just there absorbing so that we can be flexible, calm, and more responsive in the conversation.”
We can practice mindfulness by observing our thoughts without letting them run the show. When we are able to put aside planning for the “right” response or stop listening to our own narratives—what we believe, assume, or desire to be true—we can better focus on what our partners are actually saying in the moment. To wind down in conversation, observe thoughts as they come, let them through without judgment, and remind yourself to return to the present.
When we stay present while listening, we invite our conversation partners to share their experience, perspective, and feelings with us without interruption or distraction. This allows us to learn about them—how they think and feel, and what makes them unique—and from them, too. By being aware of our wandering thoughts, trusting in our memory, and practicing patience, we can show up for our conversation partner in the same way we’d like them to show up for us. Invest in your relationships by noticing when you become distracted and cooling your jets when your thoughts come into the picture. Above all, focus.