Okay, folks, here’s the hard part.
You’re in a conversation with someone. You’re talking about something interpersonally difficult. You want the conversation to go well. You’re trying to look at the situation objectively. You’re trying to direct your intention toward genuinely connecting with compassion and the hope of understanding the other person’s views. Those are great starts, . . . but you need something else for the conversation to go well.
That something else is the foundation of it all. It’s the crux of every human interaction. And it’s the crux of every interaction between you and everything in your world, whether human or not.
Communications expert Oren Jay Sofer writes about this foundational crux in his book Say What You Mean. To have an effective conversation with someone, according to Sofer, you need to follow three steps. Each step builds upon the one before it. So the first is the foundation.
Three Steps to Effective Communication, According to Oren Jay Sofer
- lead with presence (that’s what this blog post is about)
- come from curiosity and care (my post It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It is about how to direct your intention genuinely to promote better communication)
- focus on what matters (my post A Story About Connection and Perseverance is about how to see clearly by focusing on actual observations rather than worst-case scenarios)
The First Step Is Hardest: Leading With Presence
Sofer equates presence with being mindfully aware. He explains that in order to have an effective conversation, you must be there in the conversation. You can’t be on autopilot. This is difficult to understand (at least I think it is) and even more difficult to put into practice in real conversations. Here’s how Sofer explains the situation we humans find ourselves in, with regard to this concept of presence:
“Having presence for a moment is easy and readily accessible for most people. Staying connected to presence continually is harder—frankly, it takes training. Maintaining awareness in conversation is even more challenging. . . . Indeed, it’s amazing how difficult it is to stay here once we open our mouths!”
If you aren’t consciously aware that you’re in a conversation, you’re not likely to be able to direct the conversation in productive directions. You’re not likely to be able to progress to step 2 (and be intentional about coming from curiosity and care) or step 3 (and see the situation clearly and focus on what matters).
Try Talking to Someone While Staying Aware: It’s Hard
Try it! The next time you’re in a conversation with someone—any old conversation will do—try to talk and listen while being aware that you are talking and listening. Seriously, that’s some advanced shit.
How does Sofer suggest learning this skill? As suggested in the quotation above, he is quite aware that being present in a conversation is a skill that takes practice. His book includes numerous meditations that you can do to practice the skill of presence (or mindfulness): first while alone, and then while in conversation with another person. He prints these meditations in written form in the book, but he also, helpfully, includes them in audio form on his website (at https://www.orenjaysofer.com/book-audio).
As I explained in my last blog post on Say What You Mean, this book is a reference manual, not a solution in itself. It’s like, you can read hundreds of books about scuba diving, but that can’t make you an expert in scuba diving. You have to actually suit up and get in the water. Over and over. With the help of an expert trainer. Reading the books is supplemental to the process of practicing; they may be supremely helpful, but they must be accompanied by coaching and practice.
A Lesson in Presence From a Spirituality Coach
I recently had a meditation breakthrough upon receiving a brief lesson from a spirituality coach. (He’s also a talented musician, storyteller, and Reiki master, and my friend.) The lesson he gave me is about finding presence while meditating alone, and then transferring that discovery of presence to your real, lived life. It helped me understand, and truly feel, that presence is not some mystical state. It’s just you: regular old you. (Though I have to say, “regular old you” is pretty magical in its regular old self, imho) And mindfulness is not some mystical, magical thing, either. It’s just doing something while knowing you’re doing it.
This spirituality coach, Michael Smith, is especially talented in communicating these concepts. He regularly posts videos on his Facebook page to help people find presence and peace. I was excited to see that he posted a video recently on the very same lesson he gave me. The lesson is short—only 4 minutes long. But it really helped me. Watch this video to receive Michael Smith’s lesson in presence and peace.
Presence in a Constrained World
Everything has been feeling tight and constricted around me lately. Social distancing makes it hard to get out, and having a concussion (I still can’t drive, but I’m working on it!) constrains my world even further. But I find that it helps to repeatedly, throughout the day, reground myself in presence. I still have a lot to learn in that regard. But as Sofer says, training truly does lead to improvements in being mindful and in using that skill to improve your communications . . . as well as everything else in life.
Are you present right now?