how to attend

i’ve had a lot of meetings lately. times like this afford me the opportunity of considering the ways in which i am present to others and they to me. more than when i am simply being heard or seen, i take special note of when i feel “attended to.” this rare experience is a gift. 

attending to someone requires discipline. it is an active, conscious task which involves the whole person. focus is necessary and an ability to sit still helps. eye contact also helps. phones do not.

it amazes me how many people prepare themselves for meetings by taking a look at their phone, making sure the ringer is off, then placing it, face up, on the table in front of them. when meeting with a mother of a young child who is with a sitter, a physician who is actively on call, or other similarly needed individuals, this makes sense. when, however, the meeting is a time limited one between two or more people who have chosen to make space for each other, the sense of this is lost on me. even still, i am guilty of this exact preparatory practice.

and so i am challenging myself to attend in a new way for a week. i am choosing to apply all that i know about attending to the one that i am with to as many encounters as possible. not just those with my friends, clients, and family but also those with the person ringing up my purchases, the people in line with me at the bank, the person stocking the shelves at the store, and the server who fills my coffee cup.

here is what i know about attending:

1 it takes self control. when attending, i listen more than i talk. even when i have the perfect anecdote it might be best for me to simply be quiet. and still. and more open to what the other needs to say that what i want to say. the same can be true with advice, stories, or filling the space. it isn’t all about me and it takes self control to show that.

2 it requires presence. truly encountering another requires being fully present in the moment. a glance at an incoming text hijacks me from this. answering a call, the same. unlocking my phone even to takes notes about our conversation or to make a date for our next meeting tends to invite me to leave where i am. by jotting notes on a napkin and transferring them, later, into my phone, i will be more internally directed to the one that i am with. by actually leaving my phone in my backpack or, actually, my car when there is no urgent reason for anyone to contact me, i will arrive to my encounters more fully present and less distracted. this matters.

3 the way in which i am present communicates volumes about my level of care, respect, and value of the person i am with. if i am ordering coffee while on the phone with my friend, i communicate my values. if i am listening to my meeting mate but looking everywhere but into his eyes, i am sending a message. if i’m present at the table but texting under it, i passively communicate that my presence in the text communique is more important to me than are those in the room. there are no calls, i believe, that are so important that they need to be answered when a service person is helping me. few texts are urgent enough to require response while i am in a brief conversation with someone face to face, even if it happened unexpectedly during a text conversation. if they are, i will sit and complete them prior to engaging a sales clerk, or receptionist, or my friend. if i am physically with someone, there are few instances where i need to invite the digital presence of another. when i do this i communicate that my relationship with my phone and all it’s contacts is more important to me than your actual embodied presence. i want to treat you respectfully in this brief moment i have to do so. 

4 an awkward moment or two (or ten) will absolutely, under no circumstances, kill me. i can handle it if you and i come to an impasse and there is silence. i do not need to bow to the peer pressure of engaging with my phone while in line or waiting for my meal or when you get up to use the bathroom. neither do i need to tame my inner need for constant stimulation by giving in to it. i  am capable of waiting, and looking, and listening, and attending, even when it is uncomfortable, counter cultural, and messy. and so are you. and, together, perhaps we can attend fully in such a way that the people in our lives (and our interactions with them) are as familiar to us as are our phones.

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