How much of your day are you totally focused on what you are doing? We spend a lot of our time either rehearsing the future, or replaying the past. When we do this, the actual tasks we are doing are carried out on auto-pilot; with little focus, or attention. Indeed, we can spend over 75% of our time on auto-pilot. This can be productive, allowing ‘thinking time’, such as planning the next family dinner whilst undertaking a mindless task (such as cleaning the loo, ironing, mowing the lawn). However, this drifting of thoughts isn’t always productive.
When you are talking with someone, are you fully focused on what is being said? Or, do you plan what you are going to say? Do you run through different ways the conversation could go, following perhaps worrying paths, leading far away from the actual conversation? How about replaying past conversations and tormenting yourself about what you did, or didn’t say? By not fully focusing on what is being said, we miss out on a lot of information that may add depth to your understanding of the conversation. We also don’t learn and develop from the richness of our present experience, if we don’t notice much of it.
So, what are you missing? By thinking ahead to what you might say next, you are missing the subtleties and nuances within the conversation. You might not notice an inflection, gesture or micro-expression. This can lead to you misunderstanding what has been said, or not fully understanding what was meant by what was said. Alternatively, you might be replaying what you have just said and judging that according to either positive or negative criteria. The disadvantage of this is that what has already been said is gone, but you may be missing the response to what you said, thus losing out on being able to quickly adapt what you say next. By missing out on the full actual response of the listener, you may end up guessing how your message was received. This can lead to you placing an interpretation on the words that the other person isn’t thinking. Far more helpful to be fully aware of their ongoing response.
For example; James has just bought his own home and has a new manager at work. He has heard that the manager is keen to make changes. When James is talking to his new manager, he is worrying about all that could go wrong with the conversation and how he might not cope with changes or get his point across. As a result of that, and not being fully present in conversations with him, the manager finds James to be distracted and not very clear at communicating. He starts to pay more attention to James’ work. Because of this increased attention, James worries even more about his job and gets more and more anxious, which then reflects on his performance and gets even more attention from his manager. James talked to a colleague about his concerns and learned that the proposed changes would likely make James even better off financially and that he had been ‘borrowing trouble’.
Whether having a conversation at work, gossiping with friends, talking with relatives or even conversing with strangers, we can spend a lot of our time anywhere but fully in the present moment. This can be a learned behaviour and happen just as often for ‘important conversations’ as for those perceived more ‘everyday’ or less significant. Perhaps at work you may be thinking about your next holiday, or thinking ahead to how your work will be mounting up over that time, rather than listening fully to the chatter of your colleague. Maybe you ‘zone out’ when your partner is telling you about the challenges of their day (or ‘zone the moan’). With important conversations, it goes without saying (but I will), that by being present, you would get more, perhaps essential information. Yet, with those casual conversations, people will, on some level, notice if you are not fully engaged and this may mean that the next time they have something to share, they won’t tell you. Furthermore, for either of these conversations, being fully present and engaged helps develop and maintain rapport. That harmonious interpersonal relationship will have a beneficial influence on the conversation.
Being truly present in the conversation is much more than simply listening (although that is a great start). Focusing on the present experience, connecting to the information from all of your senses, can give you a richer life. Furthermore, the change in brain activity (more balance between left and right hemispheres) can increase your ability to cope with challenging situations more positively. Each time you respond to a situation more positively, the brain learns and it becomes easier for it to repeat that approach. By being more connected to your present experience and gaining greater self-knowledge and self-awareness, you can achieve a more informed perspective of any challenges and be more open to the potential of choice.
Some people respond to challenging situations with avoiding them (a flight response), others take it on as a battle (a fight response), and others still, simply don’t know what to do (a freeze response). Imagine that you have returned home after a fabulous holiday and your partner tells you that one of your parents is insisting that you call them the moment you get home. It is ‘vital’ they say. What is your first response? Do you hide, not answering emails or phone calls (avoid)? Get straight on the phone to them, to question what all the hurry is about (battle)? Or simply sit there and wonder what to do (shock)? Do you notice your thoughts? Your emotions? Your body? Or your behaviour? All are likely to contribute to your present experience as they interact together.
At times, significant adverse life events can result in low mood, depression or anxiety. This can mean thoughts are more likely to be negatively focused. Such low mood can then be exacerbated by subsequent negatively focused thinking patterns and responses. For example, your partner said he would cook dinner that night, but when you get home, he still hasn’t arrived, let alone started on dinner. A negative focus may lead to thoughts that he doesn’t care about you, or even that he is having an affair. This can lead to thoughts of anxiety and worry, which can be felt within the body. Such thinking of what could go wrong (‘catastrophising’) can lead someone off into an even greater negative mindset, which can then influence your behaviour. In this example, you may give your partner a hard time when they finally do arrive home, without even waiting to find out that they may have had a flat tyre on the way home and it has taken them a while to fix it. That entire period of time of negative thinking with accompanying negative emotions and possibly unpleasant body sensations was unnecessary and stress-inducing. Kind of like carrying around a massive weight for no good reason…
Instead, by focusing on the present and what you are actually experiencing, you take away worry about the future. You also eliminate the reliving and ruminating over past events (which you cannot change as they have already happened). By being more open to our present experience, and the reality of that present moment, we are better informed when we make choices as to how we respond. Remember, by placing a judgement on something as good or bad, it already starts to narrow your perspective. Overthinking about something can lead your thoughts in directions where there is little or no rationality or evidence.
At times, a conversation may be uncomfortable. It is natural to be less present in a conversation at that time. We all tend to do whatever we can to avoid discomfort, whether physical or emotional. Yet, whilst we work so hard to avoid it, we are keeping our focus on the very thing we wish to avoid, which can be both tiring and frustrating. For example, if you are feeling anxious about an upcoming meeting with your manager, acknowledge the anxiety, rather than trying to resist it. Then, accept that you are experiencing anxiety. Recognise it. Now, that you recognise it, you can consider if there is anything that you can do to reduce or eliminate it, such as by preparing for the meeting. If there is nothing more you can do, you can accept that you are experiencing anxiety, and simply focus your attention elsewhere. Your feelings and emotions are not you, they are only feelings and emotions. You are not your thoughts. For example, if you were to, now, think that you are a 6ft neon-green zebra, tap dancing to reggae music (weird, right?), no matter how much you think it, you are not that neon-green zebra.
Being fully present in a conversation is a skill. It takes a lot of focus at the start. So, start small, even just 2 minutes per conversation, then increase the time from there. By being more mindful within your communications, you will be more aware of the experience of the person with whom you are communicating (empathy). Rather than communicating ‘on auto-pilot’ and doing what you have always done in a given situation, by avoiding judgemental (past/future focused) thinking, you are taking more notice of the actual situation. Focused listening, rather than assuming or planning your next words, can give you a clearer perspective of what that communication interaction is really about.
If you would like to find out more about how to turn off that auto-pilot, it’s worth taking a look at Chapter 12 of my new book, ‘How to Communicate More Effectively’. As well as learning to be more present in your communications, this book is filled with masses of techniques and activities to help you enhance your communication skills, in any situation.
We hope that this blog on being present in conversations has been helpful to you. If you have any more questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks