The lost art of being present

Our choices, not technology, have reduced communication to a Pavlovian digital drool.


“To be interesting, be interested.”

I was recently reminded of that quote from Dale Carnegie. And I can’t help but wonder if the quality of being interested – also referred to as being present – is going extinct.

It’s always been in short supply. When Carnegie first wrote his famous book in the 1930s, one of his anecdotes was the importance of not answering the phone when you have a personal visitor in your office. That was the 1930s.

Now, with cell phones and mobile devices attached to us like a third arm, many of us have become like Pavlov’s dogs – jumping to answer or respond no matter what else is going on.

I’m not even going into the likelihood of us killing or maiming ourselves or others when we do this in the car.

But I will say the habit is killing and maiming our relationships.

I’ll give some credence to generational differences in the way we communicate. But it’s not merely a generational issue. People of all ages are becoming programmed to respond on command to any digital alert.

We may plan ahead for weeks to meet someone for coffee. Yet when we arrive, the meeting is sabotaged by “Sorry I’ve got take this” and continual back-and-forth texting. Before you know it, time’s up and much of the potential for interaction has been burned up.

It makes you want to grab the phone and throw it against the wall.

Contrast this with the last time someone gave you their complete attention. Can you even remember when that was? It’s a rare and beautiful thing for someone to fully listen, understand and respond. Feeling we’ve been understood is an oasis on a desert highway of digital noise.

Not only is being present the polite and the right thing to do, it is advantageous in friendship, marriage and business.

The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you.
— Leo Tolstoy

No one ever says, “You know she’s really nice and all, but she just listens too much. I wish she’d interrupt me and at least respond to some texts while I’m talking.” Or, “That sales guy wasted my time actually trying to understand what problem I want to solve. The audacity!”

If you’re at a social gathering that feels awkward, you can never go wrong by showing genuine interest in others. This is something we can all learn how to do.

I’ve certainly been guilty of not being present. While someone’s talking, my thoughts have often raced ahead to what I’ve got to do next.

But at the end of the day, life is about people – real, authentic, non-virtual relationships. Digital connections are a supplement, not a substitute.

I appreciate the sentiment of my friend Dr. Dan Erickson: “If I could live life over again, I would be more thoughtful, feel more intensely, speak more tenderly and live more intentionally. But I can’t! So I will begin today.”

All we really have is this very moment. It’s unlikely someone will die or the office will blow up if we put the phone away while we have coffee with a friend.

Missionary Jim Elliott said it best: “Wherever you are, be all there.”

Excuse me. … I have to get this.