Respectful Presence


Treating others as valuable by taking the time to really listen and to be present in the moment is one of the most impactful practices anyone can engage in. Not thinking about what’s next. Not thinking about how to respond, but giving people our whole attention.

A friend was telling me about how he had been learning to be present with others. Rather than trying to arrange his life so that he only had “pleasant” experiences, he was taking on whatever circumstances came his way. He was  finding “hidden gold”  nearly every day in his encounters with family, friends and coworkers. The hidden gold was the opportunity to be present, and really listen to people. Often these opportunities existed because there was some difficulty that he wished the other person hadn’t experienced but if the unfortunate circumstance hadn’t occurred, they likely wouldn’t have been talking. These encounters resulting in a feeling of connectedness, with others feeling that they were cared for, that they were loved. In the process he was discovering amazing things about other people’s lives. As he was describing this experience he asked the question:

Is it really this simple? Just to be with people and listen to them? In my personal and professional life no one ever told me how powerful this is.  Do people just not see it or is it so obvious that no one thought to tell me?  No, that’s not it, because so few people do this.

My answer was that it really is that simple. I noted that I have encounter material advocating the importance of presence and listening, but that it is something that seems to be under appreciated, and practiced even less than it is acknowledged.

The first time I remember being challenged to be more present was when I read the  Oswald Chambers biography Abandoned in God which described how he was present with people even when “better opportunities” showed up. The book suggested Chambers was present with Jesus which led him to be attention to others. While I was inspired by the description of Chambers, I was had little success being so focused on others. 

Igantian Exercises. These exercises were designed to help people experience Jesus in a real and personal way.  Along the way, we were taught how to be present with the other participants. Each week  we were reminded that besides our journey with Jesus, that we were there to witness the journey others were on which required us to avoid  interfering with or commenting on someone else’s experience, to avoid crosstalk. I chafed under the no crosstalk rule but in the end I came to see how powerful it could be. Rather than imposing what I thought someone should attend to, I got to witness God doing amazing things in someone’s life.  I described this in my post about nature of truth and progressive revelation:

Early on in the Ignatian exercises, a dear lady shared something that “God had showed her”. I wanted to jump up and say “No, that’s not possible. Here are five Bible passages that clearly show what you said is wrong.” During these exercises we don’t engage in “cross talk” (e.g. don’t comment on other people’s experiences) but rather stand in witness to what God is doing. Several months later, at the end of the exercises, this women’s life had changed more for the better than any of us. Her sharing at the beginning was what she was able to understand where she was at then. The following months God continued to moved her, showing her more and more truth, growing her understanding. I would bet at the end of the exercises, she would disagree with her earlier statement, yet it was a stage she had to pass through to her greater understanding.

For several years after doing the Ignation exercises I kept being present with others at the forefront of my mind and tried to practice it each day. I still failed, sometimes spectacularly like when I found myself speaking rather than listening and when I was more focused on my plans than being present. Alas, I got busy with work and forgot to stay focused on listening and being present. There was so much that I “needed” to get done. I didn’t “have time” to listen, to slow down and be present. During this time I found my life became poorer, and I didn’t have a sense of excitement, looking forward to what I might discover each day. Thankfully, I have once again been reminded of how important it is to respectfully listen and to be present. I am once again finding life a great adventure. Some material that has really helped me:

Stephen’s Ministry Training. Stephen’s ministry is a global which trains people to “walk along side” people in need. The program emphasizes not “fixing” peoples problems but being with them. Much of the training is about how to listen well and help others find their own answers.

Karen Seidman‘s training offered to some of the leadership team when I was working at 23andme. Karen models effective listening, showing respect, and being present. She had excellent material about trust, growth, listening, and providing effective feedback. Along the way she shared her experiences with how deep listening – listening for the values/positive intent under the surface can enable effective engagements and significantly increase the likelihood of being able to influence people who would normally dismiss your concerns. She encouraged us to listen for understanding, getting to the “Yes! You Understand!”, which is best accomplished when we assume good intent: looking for shared values, and with a desire to bless others. Side note: She reminding me of  Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference and introducing me to David Rock’s scarf-model which I have found very helpful.

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