being present and connecting
September 3, 2016 5:18 PM   Subscribe

What are practical ways to genuinely be present with people and to connect with them?

It's pretty easy for me to "check out" mentally when I'm feeling anxiety in relationships. I put a high value on being present physically with people I care about, but I can too easily distract myself with other things like TV, computer, etc., during time that I should be investing in my close familial relationships. What I would really like to be able to do is two things: 1) learn how to "stay in the moment," even if it causes me some social anxiety due to normal relationship things (like disagreements, disappointments, etc.); and 2) if I stay in the moment, what are good ways of connecting with people and being present, and not simply checking out mentally? It's sometimes easy for me to "be there" without really being there, and I'd like some things to practice that counteract this. I'm not looking for medication or counselor advice, but some hands-on things, perhaps mantras, or ways to think about relationships philosophically in the moment, sort of like a rubber-band on the wrist when you want to change habits.
posted by SpacemanStix to Human Relations (15 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Practice Buddhism.
posted by bleep at 5:24 PM on September 3, 2016


You could stop using TV/computer/electronic device so much in general. You'll be more in the moment all the time.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:33 PM on September 3, 2016 [18 favorites]


This might sound simple, but for me presence requires breath -- literally. When I am with another person I think about our breath, and how we not only breath the same air, but we breath each other's expired air. This reminds me that now is now, and it's all we have. Then I listen.

I used to send all my time f'ing around on the computer -- then my husband got an iPad and started spending all his time f'ing around on it. And I felt secondary. I decided to never make him secondary again. He lives and breathes, his heart beats, and his heat rises. He is so, so alive, and I need to be alive for him. I do that by listening to him breath.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:55 PM on September 3, 2016 [27 favorites]


When I saw your question I thought "Oh boy, maybe I'll get some answers here." I definitely have this issue at times. Where I do not have this issue, at least as much, is with people I trust and feel at ease with.

I think it might be helpful to seek out friendships with people who feel very present, and with whom you feel comfortable. What you learn from those relationships can translate into others.

Have a specific goal, like "I'm going to sit down for a cup of coffee with my friend, and I'm going to turn off my phone, and I'm going to practice being really present with them for 30 minutes." Or 20. Or 45. And tell them "Hey, I'm trying to be more present, so I'm putting my phone on silent. If you notice me drifting, will you say something?"

And sometimes, when I have trouble being present with someone, it's a giant red flag. Not always, but definitely sometimes.
posted by bunderful at 5:55 PM on September 3, 2016 [4 favorites]


Make a habit of caring about and checking in on people's physical state in the moment you're being with them. And also, your own.

That means asking things like "how are you doing?" and actually meaning you want to know how someone's doing, but more practically it means taking care of people as they are. Ask people if they're thirsty or hungry or hot or cold or uncomfortable or whatever and then taking steps to get them the thing that will fix their physical issue. Tea, a better pillow, ask to take their coat, basic courtesy stuff that seems to go by the wayside most of the time. But also ask this of yourself at the same time. Are you thirsty or cold or do your feet hurt? The more comfortable you are physically the less distractions you will have from being an active listener and paying actual attention to your conversation partner.

When you catch yourself drifting, do a spot check on yourself and then whoever you're with. Remember that they might also be drifting, and checking in with them can get them to change the subject to something more relevant or important or have them wrap things up so you both can get on with things.

I think that there's lots of value though in just being together with someone without being so super present or connected. Not always but sometimes, and often with people who are especially close to me. I know that I can turn on the connection and active listening when I need to, but there is definite pleasure in being able to exist beside someone. Try to find ways to be comfortable with being quiet with other people. Reading quietly in the same room, listening to a record together, eating a meal with only the occasional verbal exchange. Doing these kinds of things shores me up without taking any of the energy that a super connected present conversation would dock me, and makes the other person calm as well. This calm can be carried to other interactions with other people later.
posted by Mizu at 6:06 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Some people do well with moderation and some people with bright-line rules, and I'm definitely in the second group. It's been pretty amazing for my husband and I to have a no-screen rule whenever we're with our (now) 2-year-old. If he's home and awake and in the room with us, we're not looking at tablet or our computer or our phone, and the television is not on, AT ALL. (Note that neither of us is a SAHP, so this really applies from 7-8am before work and 5-8pm after work.)

It's made me amazingly aware of how much my impulse to zone out in front of a screen is related to being tired or low-energy and taking the path of least resistance (staring a screen rather than rallying to be present with my kid or my husband). My husband has made the same observation. We're good at gently reminding each other, "Hey, if you're going to be here, please be here." The vast majority of the time, the person starting to zone out will apologize and put the screen away; about 10% of the time, they'll say, "You know, I'm feeling really tired and need a break, I'm going to go hole up in our room and decompress for 20 minutes." Which feels a million times better than just ignoring other people in the room and not acknowledging that is happening.

I do sometimes feel like a luddite because I don't respond to people's texts for hours at time - taking a break from constant connectivity will make you realize how much expectations have shifted on this front! - but our no-screen rule has more than made up for it by making me feel like a good 90% of the time I spend with my kid is high-quality time. It's also been really good for my relationship with my husband, which feels much less like it's on autopilot. Highly recommend.
posted by iminurmefi at 6:18 PM on September 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


Okay I'm going to admit some embarrassing stuff here but may this could work for you... there are people I don't see often and make it a point to REALLY connect with them when I can, so I actually come up with a list of things to talk about and I write it down and reference it right before I see them. It may seem scripted but it's still coming from me, and it's the best way that I have found to help me focus. I get anxious if I don't get through the list. For example I saw an out of state friend of mine earlier this year and my list was:

How's your father doing?
How about your mom?
Where's your brother working these days? Is he still traveling a lot?
How's your job going, are you still looking for something else or have things settled a bit?
What are your travel plans this year?

Then I feel free to move on to easier talk that isn't on the list like movies, music, something less about that person specifically that we can both talk about.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 7:17 PM on September 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


1) learn how to "stay in the moment," even if it causes me some social anxiety due to normal relationship things (like disagreements, disappointments, etc.);

I think this is a bit complicated, in that you'll have to work on a) tolerating the discomfort of conflict and b) relaxing your expectations of others and maybe yourself.

For a), you have to think about what it is about conflict that upsets you, whether that's in general, or just with the main people in your life. Do these communications amount to what you (and most) would consider healthy, respectful disagreement, or is someone involved rude, or e.g. a big yeller (and e.g. you hate yelling)? Or a stonewaller (and you need to communicate)? Are the disagreements about fundamental issues that one or the other is unwilling to change, with a resulting impasse? Are you being asked to do more than you can? Are you able to be assertive about your needs?

Are you disappointed because you're a giver and set a high standard that way, and expect others to return what you offer? If so, it may help to limit what you give, and try to derive reward from your own activities. (That way, you might end up expecting less and feeling less resentful.) Or are you disappointed because you hold high standards for others that they can't realistically meet? (If so, need to relax those standards.) Or because maybe you're simply around the wrong people?

(Rhetorical questions for reflection.)

If you find yourself wound up by a conflict, it's ok to ask for time to breathe.

and 2) if I stay in the moment, what are good ways of connecting with people and being present, and not simply checking out mentally?

Other than ditching electronic devices (an important step), I think the main thing is to just offer your attention to the people you're with. Receive, be interested. If you're not naturally interested in the people you're around, seek the company of people who do engage you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:46 PM on September 3, 2016


Hi spaceman, I'm skygal.

I have extreme difficulty with this. So difficult it's diagnosed as a disassociative disorder.

It has taken me lots of purposeful practice. I do NOT like my feelings, and tend to turn them 'off'. I used therapy to start feeling more.

But general things: intentionally notice your surroundings or features of people more. Say them mentally in your head. For example 5 objects, 5 sounds. People features: name distinct features in your head, doesn't matter what maybe prominent eyebrows or awesome shirt. Work on noticing your enviroment more.

Take deep breaths. Try to name what you are feeling in the moment to other people. Get a feelings list if you suck at this like I did. It helps to connect current feelings. You can do this twice a day in the morning and evening for your own information and then start working on communicating with others about it.

Intentionally listen to others. You may have to mentally remind yourself to do things that people interested in conversations do: put down the phone, lean foward slightly, make appropriate eye contact.

It's okay to pause, admit you lost focus and try again.

If your feeling particularly spacy, a strong tea, candy or smell may put you more in the moment.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:34 PM on September 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm really bad at this too. Keeping my attention fixed on the person in front of me is really hard. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I think it's partly arrogance that makes me do this - I think I can predict what they're going to say next, so I get bored and tune out. At the risk of overfitting to my own situation... there's a bunch of little things that I try to do now, but the big one for me has been this:

AlexiaSky: "It's okay to pause, admit you lost focus and try again."

This is my approach. I openly say "I'm really sorry, I blanked out, could you repeat that?" and I force myself to say it every time. And I don't hide my embarrassment. It's hard to admit that I wasn't listening, but it helps me to say it explicitly for several reasons, all of which are crude behaviour modification strategies (somewhere the ghost of J.B. Watson is laughing at me):

1. Punishment signal - I hate having to say it because it makes me sound like a jerk. It's embarrassing. The mere fact of saying it out loud provides a training signal, and I slowly learn that if I don't want to sound like an inattentive jerk then I should stop being an inattentive jerk.

2. Reward signal - It turns out that lots of people suck at this big time, so not only do they willingly repeat themselves, they often do so cheerfully and in a way that pulls me back into the conversation. Seeing someone immediately engage in this tiny act of social kindness reminds me of why I was listening in the first place - oh right, this is a person worth attending to, because look, they're showing me kindness even though I admitted I was being kind of a dick.

3. I'm not as smart as I think I am - A subtler realisation I had was that if I don't do the embarrassed "sorry, I wasn't listening" thing, I never realise just how bad my predictions about other people are. Most of the time it turns out that the thing I was expecting them to say isn't quite what they actually said, and when I stop and ask them to repeat what they said I usually learn interesting something about them. Eventually my curiosity wins out over my arrogance, and I find myself wanting to stay focused.

(Of course, your situation may be terribly different from mine, so YMMV)
posted by langtonsant at 3:05 AM on September 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


It seems like this theme, and others like it, are trending across more than one platform in my scope of awareness... and this may have something to so with it? (YMMV, your personal beliefs may not align of course.) Regardless, it's worthwhile personal advice.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:25 AM on September 4, 2016


I realize that you're asking for some practical, hands-on advice, and that several people here have given you some great suggestions. However, there is a specific reason for this:

"I can too easily distract myself with other things like TV, computer, etc., during time that I should be investing in my close familial relationships."

And that is ok. But the reason is important! Getting to the bottom of why you're easily distracted is key here. Is it defensiveness? Uncomfortableness with vulnerability? Feelings of responsibility? Boundary issues? Unresolved past hurts?

There is some reason why checking out is preferable to being in that moment. Maybe it's a simple one, maybe not. But understanding and addressing it is ultimately better (and in the long run, easier) than any workaround for dealing with its effect on you as a result of your 'nope out' trigger being flipped.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:25 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I can't believe no one has mentioned meditation. Practice being in the moment on a regular basis whether it's when you brush your teeth, do the dishes, take out the garbage, what have you.
posted by xammerboy at 6:59 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your suggestions, and I've already started to put some things to use to good effect. My wife was out of town over the weekend, and I was at home with our three girls. We all committed to making the weekend fun with minimal screen time (we had one movie night), and the qualitative difference was pretty great. All the girls said they had a really fun time, and that it wasn't boring!

Also, I packed up my main computer that is in my home office, as I realized that I don't hardly do business on it that I can't as easily do on my netbook, which I can also pack up and put away so as not to have it as a public fixture in our house. (My wife appreciated this a lot.)

I also discovered something interesting. I've been realizing over time that "screen time" is easy to default to if I'm feeling anxious about life (which is why I raised the question), but cutting out screens actually makes me feel far less so, and I've slept better the last couple of nights. Again, I appreciate your honest responses. They were really helpful for me.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:12 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sometimes it's nice to have something to do together. Just sitting looking at each other and talking for an extended period isn't always that great.

Cooking together is nice, something like that. Sometimes it works to play cards or Scrabble or something while you chat.
posted by Puddle Jumper at 10:41 PM on September 8, 2016


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