I drew that illustration a few days ago, on Christmas.
In my family, Christmas is about being with people. I have a large family, largely of Roman Catholic Irish ancestry, and I see a lot of them when I fly back to the east coast for Christmas. I find it an interesting challenge to be with them all. I don't mean that they're hard to be with in the sense that they're rude, or have poor hygiene, or run rapidly through the house or hide under tables. I just mean that it takes a lot of attention from me to really make the most of the time I have with each of them.
The ability to be with someone else is the ability to give them your attention - simple as that. I don't think I'm especially great at this, but I am writing about it because I have met people who do this very well, and it's obviously very important to do. I think practicing being with people is one of the most valuable ways that I spend my energy.
I also think that without role models, without having met people who do this well, I wouldn't "get it" even to the extent I do now. I think experiencing this is really important because, as an experience, it loses something in the retelling. If I can inspire you to do one thing in reading this post, I would like for it to be this: seek out people who are very good at being present with others. Experience it for yourself. I dare you to leave unmoved.
The most moving experience of presence I've experienced was at a retreat held out at Bastyr University just outside Seattle. It was a weekend meditation retreat led by Kamala Masters, a woman I had never met. She was soft-spoken, thoughtful, deliberate, but relatively informal about how she did things. I came to the retreat at a point where I was struggling with a bad breakup, the kind that makes for lots of intrusive and painful thoughts when I was trying to do walking meditation or sitting meditation or really any meditation at all.
It was really rough. I don't think it was a great time for a retreat, even just a two-day one. By the second day I was finding it so exhausting just bringing my mind back over and over and over as it wandered into painful daydreaming that I finally gave up and left. I went to tell Kamala I was leaving, but it was lunchtime so she was in the cafeteria line with a large line of other students who were talking to her, and as I walked up I was interrupting.
I was frustrated at myself for giving in, and exhausted from the hours of meditation harder than I was really ready for, and embarrassed to be drawing attention to myself in the busy lunch line, but I didn't want to show any of that, so I walked up to her, smiled, and I don't even remember what I said, but it was a bunch of polite fluff. "I just wanted to thank you so much for the retreat, but it's been very tough for me so I've been thinking..." and so on.
As I was talking she was just looking at me, very calmly. I remember an image came to me right at that moment, very vividly. It was as though I was throwing fistfuls of leaves at her face to blind or distract her, expecting her to recoil, turn her head, raise her arms, but she did none of that. She just stood still and the leaves just fell away.
It was actually kind of a terrifying experience, realizing how much of the words I say are just armor, defense, ways of deflecting the conversation away from my real vulnerability, and furthermore seeing that unlike most people I'd met, this woman was utterly unfazed by it.
She just looked at me with compassionate eyes and the faintest hint of a kind smile at the corners of her mouth, gave an almost imperceptible nod and said, "Thank you."
I had to high-tail it from the cafeteria before I burst into tears.
They say as humans we want just to be seen and to be loved, and the practice of really being with someone else is doing both of those things for them. And it doesn't take much. It took Kamala a bit of patience and two words.
I cannot do what she did. I aspire to it. But what holds me back is not a lack of something - it's not that Kamala has some skill or some compassion that I don't. Rather, my ailment is an excess, a kind of built-up tension. The illustration is a loaded bear trap, primed, coiled, ready to snap shut. My tension is like that: it is a flinch reflex. When I feel a conversation getting too close, in the blink of an eye I snap shut, I close myself off, and distance myself with some diversion or deflection.
This metaphor is important because you can't get better at something if you don't know how. If you want to build muscle, you need to understand that you do that by using your muscles at their limits and eating protein and so on. By contrast, if you want to get better at being with other people, it's not like weight lifting at all. It isn't about doing hard, strenuous work. It is about being gentle and paying close attention, like learning how to get closer to the bear trap without setting it off. It is a practice of release, of letting go, of slowly disarming that trap.
Lee Glickstein is a public speaking coach who runs groups he calls "Speaking Circles" in San Francisco and an organization of the same name that runs them internationally. I haven't attended personally but I have friends who rave about them. If you read the site, the thing that may strike you most is this: he's a public speaking coach, but his approach seems relatively unconcerned with actually speaking. He treats it as rather secondary. The circles have three guidlines, and the second is this:
The second guideline is for the person up front. Notice we don’t call that person “The Speaker” – because when you’re up front there is no expectation that you speak at all! Your full priority up front is to be in Relational Presence with one listener at a time. Words may arise naturally, or silence may prevail.
At first it seems odd. A speaking circle might not involve actually speaking? But if you think about it a while, it makes sense: for a lot of people, speaking is the way their bear-trap snaps shut. It's compulsive, a way of filling uncomfortable silences, drawing attention away from the present moment, distracting the mind. It's what I was doing with Kamala, and it's what Glickstein doesn't want his participants doing to each other. It is one of our most common strategies for dissociation.
The practice of being with others starts by noticing our strategies for not being with others.
All our strategies have a distinct "feel" to them. The more you pay attention, the more you'll recognize it, like a familiar flavor at the back of your throat. They smack of safety, but not the safety of mutual support, rather the safety of distance, of isolation. Pay attention during conversations for those moments where you very suddenly feel more at ease. For me, that's always a sign I've just employed a strategy to escape.
For managers, this is especially important in one-on-one meetings because presence is so important to connecting. I once had a team member who had a tendency to fill up our one-on-ones with rants. It was a practice his prior manager had supported based on the conventional wisdom that one-on-ones are the report's time to say what they need to say, and a good manager's job is to listen.
The problem, I soon saw, was that when this individual was ranting, he was not present. It was a strategy for not really being there in the room with me. And so I mustered up my best impersonation of my therapist.
Him: "This thing is a disaster, and if those guys had noticed this last year we wouldn't have this problem, but now it's too late and this whole project is way behind."
Me: "That sounds like it's really frustrating you."
Him: "Well, it's going to screw the project if we can't figure out how to get the performance up to where it needs to be!"
Me: "That must be difficult to watch from the outside. Just listening to you right now, I feel a sense of helplessness. It's making me feel frustrated!"
Him: "The worst part is, everyone should have seen this coming from a mile away. This is a classic blunder."
Me: "That may be true, but this meeting isn't about solving that. Right now, honestly, I'm more interested in how you're feeling about it."
Him: "Uh, I guess it's just wearing on me. I'm trying to focus on the stuff I need to get done but I can't stop thinking about their situation. It's a train wreck and it just makes me angry every time I think about it."
That's not a verbatim conversation, of course, but it's one I've had many, many times, with many people, and I'm sure I've been on the other side of it even more often. It's the process of coaxing the bear trap back open. There's a very palpable shift in the last thing he says, where he's begun to bring his attention back into the room and back into the present.
I'm not saying you can't talk about external objects or events. You can, and in many other kinds of meetings that's your explicit goal. But there is a very significant difference between bringing those objects and events into the room, conceptually speaking, and sending your attention out of the room to them. If you've ever sat in a meeting full of people staring at their laptops, you know exactly what I mean by "sending your attention out of the room." Taking notes is fine. Ten straight minutes of no eye contact isn't.
If you're a manager, there's a specific trap you need to watch out for, which is expecting vulnerability from your report without returning the favor. There's an asymmetry to your relationship: you're responsible for helping him grow, but he has no such obligation to you. And so you can slip into this dynamic like you're the wise old monk up on the mountain and he's come seeking wisdom, and he has to prostrate himself before you and you rub your chin thoughtfully and dispense advice, safe and secure up on your mountain.
This doesn't really work. You should spend most of your time together focusing on him, it's true, but you have to approach your work as peers tackling problems together. Open up a bit. Volunteer your feelings when it's appropriate. My second line in the hypothetical conversation is an example of this: "Just listening to you right now, I feel a sense of helplessness. It's making me feel frustrated!" Leading the way here can help set a tone that says, this kind of presence is OK. And it makes you a real human. And it helps to make you humble.
Vulnerability as a manager does open up the Pandora's Box of power dynamics, so if you have an especially combative report this takes a bit more care and nuance, but that's true of all of life. All vulnerability with anyone takes trust, which builds over time.
But even if you're not ready to bare your soul to somebody, you can resolve that when you're physically together, you'll work to be present with them.
* * *
There are two things you can do to work on this, as far as I can tell. The first, like I mentioned above, is to go find people who are already good at this and spend time with them so you have first-hand experience of what it's like. Meditation retreats are probably a good bet, but I also mention imitating my therapist. I had the fortune to work with an excellent therapist (psychoanalyst) for several years, and she was a fantastic example of presence and attention. In addition to helping me sort through a bunch of my own stuff, she was an invaluable role model. Not all therapists are so good, and you need to find one that clicks with you, but I highly recommend it.
Then the second thing is to find specific practices for working on relaxing that bear trap. My main one is this: when I'm in a one-on-one conversation with someone and a silence arises, I resist the urge to break the silence by talking. And then, while we're sitting there in silence, I also resist the urge to think about something outside the room. I pick something in the present to focus my attention on. I like to pick a sound in the room, because I know it's something the other person can hear, too, instead of picking something only I can feel, like my breath, or the way it feels to sit in the chair I'm in. For some reason, focusing on a sound helps me feel more present with the other person.
If you have any specific practices you've found helpful in doing this, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a comment describing it. I like having a repertoire of them so I have routines I can turn to when I catch myself withdrawing or closing up.
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