As our sensibilities are bombarded with gift ideas at this time of the year, I suggest the greatest gift we can bestow on anyone, including ourselves, is our presence. Not just our physical presence, as in being there, but our 100% attention, as in being with.
There’s a young man who serves at the checkout at our local grocery store, who has the most presence of any person I know. He is a joy to encounter. Here’s what he does. He smiles and looks me straight in the eyes and holds my gaze as he says hello and asks how my day is going. He listens with genuine interest before he averts his eyes to enter my purchases on the cash register. When he’s finished packing my bags, he looks me straight in the eyes again and, holding my gaze, thanks me with another bright smile and wishes me well. I always look away first, because I’m not nearly as good at being present as he is. I’m practicing, though. Each time I see him, I determine that I will match his presence, if I can (without being creepy, of course). He’s my presence teacher.
We often think our physical presence is enough but it’s certainly not if, while we’re there, our attention is somewhere else. In fact, people always know when we’re pretending to be attentive and, in my book, that’s worse than being honestly inattentive.
I realised this when I did an exercise in a training course where we were asked to sit facing a partner, listen attentively and then deliberately think about something different while still maintaining eye contact. You could tell the instant the other person changed from attentive to inattentive, even when the eye contact remained constant. I was shocked. I couldn’t help thinking of all the times I’ve done that, pretending to be interested when I am actually thinking about something else. What a discourteous way to behave!
Using a telephone can seem like a safe way to multi-task while pretending to listen, but if you’ve ever had a phone conversation with someone who is obviously doing other things, you’ll know how frustrating and disrespectful it feels. The most obvious distractions are technology (checking emails, Facebook, games) and other people/children/dogs. No-one minds if you start the conversation with a warning that you are keeping an eye on a two-year old while you talk. It’s the pretending that’s irritating.
So, how does all this relate to gifts? Being fully present with another person, really listening to them and thinking about what they are saying, instead of what you think about what they’re saying or what you want to say next, is about the greatest gift you can give. To anyone. Even for just one minute. Let’s face it, no-one wants to feel like a ticked box on an emotional checklist. Rather, we all want to feel valued, respected and really heard.
When someone is described as having presence or charisma, that’s all it means – to be fully present, not checking technology, not rushing to get to the bar or to talk to someone else, but totally focused and engaged. Still. Listening. Responding rather than reacting. Sometimes simply being with you, not even talking or listening. Just being.
My guess is that most people and certainly the people we love most would, given a choice, really rather have our presence, even for a short time, than our presents, anytime.