Many years ago, my son was milling about in a box I had set aside for Goodwill. Gasping, he pulled out a matchbox car destined to be a donation. “Mom don’t you REMEMBER this?! This was YOUR car! In all those races we had when I was little…?!” Quite honestly, I did not remember that I HAD a matchbox car designated for me. Often times during those races my mind would drift to my own agenda for the day or replay & analyze an interaction from the day before. In my defense, matchbox cars weren’t really my thing and I had a lot to get done each day before heading to the office. Yet it pains me that the fog of my own mental distraction separated me from even a single vivid memory of those races with a preschooler whom I treasured far more than any possible item on my to-do list. The fact that my son found those moments important enough to remember, right down to the car, was not lost on me.
As it turns out, I am in good company when it comes to my struggles to remain in the present moment. A 2010 Harvard study deduced that people spend about 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are currently doing. This mind-wandering tendency happened over 30% of the time for nearly all activities noted by participants, including taking care of their children and being in conversation with others. And ultimately, people noted that their ‘mental escapes’ left them feeling less happy than if they were fully present for the moments unfolding before them.
It is easy to switch to automatic when we are doing the same activity again and again. For a simpler task such as washing dishes, this can free our mind to be creative or to process through a complex issue. As long as we are not ruminating on negative thoughts, it can be a pleasant and even helpful little escape. But when it comes to interactions involving people, it’s best to have our eyes open and our minds tuned in. It’s important to remember that relationships are of key importance. People are not life’s little interruptions. They are essential to life itself. Dear reader, this is written by an introvert who would prefer a book over a party any day, any time. The truth is that, when most people express regrets toward the end of their lives, those regrets have little to do with how impressive their portfolio was, how clean their house was, how many possessions they acquired, or even (and this might be for me alone) how many books they read. The regrets have more to do with the legacy of love they left behind. It’s important for us to do what we can to simplify our life so that people rise to the top of our priority list. We need to give ourselves a little margin in our daily routine to be available to those that cross our path, even for just a little while. We must recognize that every interaction gives us an opportunity to demonstrate kindness. It’s also an opportunity to learn something important about the person we are engaged with, and about ourselves. Even taking time to play with little ones, is an opportunity to grow, as we absorb and mirror their unabandoned joy or spontaneous sense of wonder.
In order to maximize any interaction, take a moment beforehand to note where you are internally. What is it you need to do to get to a place where you can be a ready participant in this interaction? Do you need to take a few deep breaths? Relax some tense muscles? Clear any irritable or anxious thoughts? Do you need to turn off any screens or put the cell phone away? If you are not in a good mental place to engage, it’s ok to say so. Give the person you are talking to the respect of your full attention or politely let them know if there might be a better time. If you have committed to the conversation, show up mentally and LISTEN. Active listening is a skill to practice, not a natural bent. We can process language faster than it can be spoken, which gives us, as the listener, extra time to either drift off or to really absorb the full experience of the interaction. Release the thoughts that may sneak into your mind during the conversation so that your focus remains on the person in front of you. You’ve probably heard this a million times but do not formulate a response or a next question while the person is talking. Really hear what they have to say and let everything else flow from there. Listen with such intention that you pick up, through body language, demeanor, or tone of voice, what they are not communicating through words. Let any follow up questions be about what the person has actually said and keep your own commentary brief & related. And ultimately, remind yourself to listen with curiosity & compassion. Everyone has a story to share. Everyone wants to be noticed in some capacity, to feel heard. I recently came across this quote by David Augsburger that has had a deep impact on my own personal interactions: “Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable”. Even just a few moments of undivided attention can relay the message that the person in front of us, or on the phone with us, matters. Why in the world would we NOT want to communicate that?
Recently my son, now fifteen, asked me to go out for breakfast and then to the library for a study session with him. Lately these invitations are few and far between. He is much busier and far less talkative with me than he used to be, so I seize these opportunities when I can and tune in to every possible nuance. On this particular morning, I took mental snapshots of him seated across from me with his ham & eggs, and an extra side of Canadian Bacon because “Seriously, Mom. You can never have too much meat”. At his request I tuned in to the music he played softly in background of the library study room. I noticed the gleam in his eyes as he pointed out an intense saxophone part & then watched my face closely to gauge my response. I smiled as he broke from serious studying to type exaggeratedly to the big finish of an epic song & then throw his head back in laughter, clearly giddy from too many calculus problems. I re-learned information about the Harlem Renaissance and the Tet Offensive under his very capable and passionate tutelage. All of this seemingly ordinary activity was transformed into a priceless memory because of the incredible company I was with…and because I was fully present for every moment.
Larisa B. joined Empathia in 1998 as an EAP Counselor. Larisa has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larisa thrives on being with her family, has a passion for photography, is always up for a good hike, and is typically in the middle of no less than three books at any given time.