Our life is deeply impacted by the quality of the connections we form with others. Meaningful enduring bonds are the cornerstone of thriving for most humans. Beyond these most important bonds in our life, even the quality of the small interactions we have on a daily basis can have an impact on how we feel. On occasion when interacting with someone, we slip into a delicate dance where everything else seems to disappear and the connection between us and the other just seems to flow. We tap into something that feels larger than the sum of our two individual parts and all sense of time or the world beyond that moment disappear. But more often than not our interactions with others can feel less than satisfying. Unable to bring our whole selves to the experience, we leave these moments full of questioning doubt rather than feelings of wholeness.
In current culture, among the most common obstacles to being able to fully connect to other people are the difficult challenges of distraction and self-focus.
One of the greatest cultural challenges that we face is the monetisation of our attention. The situation confronting modern media including television, the internet, and social media is that we have ended up in the unusual position where ultimately, our attention is what is being sold for money. I am disinclined to enter into a discussion about my trepidations or the relative merits of this status quo. The complexities of that discussion would overwhelm the purpose of this small endeavour. But being mindful of the fact that this is the situation we currently find ourselves in is significant if we want to move forward in a way that serves rather than undermines the quality of our lives.
The fact that companies can monetise our attention through advertising has created inordinate incentive for them to create ever more addictive means of keeping our attention tethered to our screens. I was recently out for lunch in a casual restaurant where most of the people, whether in couples or larger families, were looking at their phones rather than engaging with each other. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Whether it is couples out for evening meals or families spending nights in at home, more and more people are overcome by the irresistible compulsion to stare at their phones rather than engaging with each other. And without the opportunity to communicate with and listen to one another it becomes impossible to connect in anything other than a superficial manner.
The second obstacle to experiencing fulfilling connections through meaningful conversation is our natural tendency to focus on ourselves during conversations. This challenge is only exacerbated by our use of social media, where the already naturally pervasive tendency to focus on the self is propelled into stratospheric realms and becomes a paralysing inability to concentrate on the other.
Focus on the self does not come from ego. Instead and somewhat counterintuitively, it comes from a place of self-doubt. Preoccupied with what the person we are speaking to is thinking of us, our attention tunnels in completely towards the self. Rather than paying attention to what they are trying to communicate we are more concerned with overanalysing their reaction to what we just said. In less critical but more self-absorbed moments, this same self-doubt manifests in the act of constantly drawing the conversation back to our own stories. Rather than engaging in a meaningful exchange on a mutual topic of interest, we spend our time simply waiting for a break in conversation to draw the focus back onto us. Instead of listening we are merely thinking of the story we could tell next to come across in what we have fantasized to be a favourable way. Tragically, this is the surest way to rob ourselves of the opportunity to have a meaningful interaction.
One way to make our life more rewarding is simply to learn to be fully present when we are in other people’s company. It can be helpful to develop a practice of using every opportunity to give the people around us our undivided attention – free from external distraction and free from critical or intense self-focus.
Practising the art of conversation involves paying close attention to the people we are with, listening so that we not only hear what they are saying but understand what they mean. It involves probing deeper on the topic they are speaking about and asking clarifying questions. Most of all it involves not interrupting or simply waiting for our turn to speak but instead gifting them our full attention to make them comfortable enough to open up beyond that initial superficial level of conversation.
We might not succeed every time but there is merit in fighting the urge to pick up our phones in other people’s company or the urge to frequently bring the conversation back to our own stories. By breaking these habits we can enjoy all the rewards that being fully present has to offer.
Full, undivided attention is the greatest gift we have to give, made all the more poignant in a distracted world where our attention is increasingly used as currency. The act of being fully present with another person reduces the distance between us to the smallest possible space and offers one of the most rewarding ways of truly breaking out of solitude.
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