NY Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a terrific column titled “Nine Non-Obvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations: The art of making connection even in a time of dislocation”.
Among the nine ways to have those deeper conversations are to “approach another human with awe” (“C.S. Lewis once wrote that if you’d never met a human and suddenly encountered one, you’d be inclined to worship this creature”), ask “elevating questions”, and so on.
While all of them are worthy, I want to focus on this one. From the column:
Treat attention as all or nothing. Of course, we all have divided attention. In “You’re Not Listening,” Kate Murphy writes that introverts have more divided attention than others while in conversation because there’s so much busyness going on in their own heads. But in conversation it’s best to act as if attention had an on/off switch with no dimmer. Total focus. I have a friend who listens to conversations the way congregants listen to sermons in charismatic churches — with amens, and approbations. The effect is magnetic.
I love the metaphor of the on/off switch versus the dimmer. During the pandemic, with the rise in video conference calls, I’ve started to turn off my self-view during meetings. I’m embarrassed to say that whenever I have my self-view on I’m unconsciously (or consciously) checking it throughout the meeting, thus distracting me from the topic at hand. My embarrassment in admitting this is tempered by my knowledge that I’m not the only one who does it. It’s pretty common.
When I turn my self-view off, the change is instantaneous. I immediately gain additional energy to focus on the speaker and the content. When the self-view is on, my attention is like water inside of a leaky bucket. By simply plugging the hole – removing myself from my view – my attention is full and focused.
We often have split attentions in any conversation. What is the other person saying? What do I think about what that person is saying? What am I going to say next? How do I look and sound right now? These are just some of the energy drains that cause us to be less than present in any moment.
This is about more than video calls and conversations of course. I’ve read that our memories are often grounded in places we’ve visited, family events we’ve celebrated, great meals we’ve enjoyed and so forth, but in a pandemic lacking any of those we are likely to look back on this annus horribilis and not remember much at all.
“I can’t remember what I did actually” we’ll say to a disappointed future student who is doing her book report on the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. “I remember wearing masks and maybe eating too much cheesecake”. It won’t be inspiring stuff.
Being present requires effort. It’s not easy, but it’s easier when we set our self-involved switch to “off” and focus on the light in front of us.