Being Engaged in Real Life: More than Just “Showing Up”

As we begin to increasingly share our experiences on Facebook and filter our lives through Instagram, there is no doubt that Interaction is changing.  Of course, everyone knows that the heart emoji does not substitute for saying the phrase “I love you.”  But what significance does texting the phrase “I love you” have?”  As our interactions become increasingly digital, many people are beginning to look harder at how virtual communication translates In Real Life.  What can we convey digitally?  What can’t we convey digitally?  And how do we consolidate the gaps that arise between the two?

Forbes article written by Susan Tardanico about this very subject uses the heartbreaking example of a college student who, after having a normal, bubbly text message exchange with her mother one afternoon, attempted suicide that evening.  Had the afternoon’s interaction between mother and daughter occurred in person, had the two spoken face-to-face, the truth most likely would have been obvious; the daughter had “been holed up in her dorm room, crying and showing signs of depression – a completely different reality from the one that she conveyed in texts, Facebook posts, and tweets.”  None of that was conveyed via text.

This is an extreme example, but it reminds us of the dangerous side effects of digital communication.  When we can’t connect to each other in person, we miss out on a lot of important signals that could save a friendship, a relationship, or even (as in the above case) a life.

But there is a lot more than just physical presence that goes into the type of quality interaction that clues you into some of the important information we miss when interaction is digital.  If you aren’t making the effort to be fully engaged with the person you’re talking to, you might as well be firing emails back and forth, or messaging over Facebook.  Right?

Maybe?  Maybe not?  Let’s look harder at what makes up a quality interaction as our interaction becomes increasingly digital.

Tardanico’s article notes that “studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word.  A whopping 93% is based on non-verbal body language.  Indeed, it’s only when we look into someone’s eyes that we’re able to know when ‘I’m fine’ doesn’t mean they’re fine at all… or when ‘I’m in’ doesn’t mean they’re bought in at all.”  But what if you’re looking into someone’s eyes and thinking about what you’re going to eat for lunch, or trying to remember if the new episode of your favorite show is uploading to Hulu that night, or daydreaming about your upcoming beach vacation?

In that case, wouldn’t you still miss that shimmer of uncertainty in the other person’s eyes that says “I’m not okay with what’s going on right now?”  It was there, and you were there to see it, but you weren’t committed to looking.  The point at which you could have caught the discomfort, improved your relationship with the other person, and transformed the interaction has been lost as your attention wavers and the other realizes that you aren’t listening.  Not really.

It’s the same issue with social media.  If you’re not really invested in being engaged with the other while you’re with them in person, you could still be missing up to 93% of the information being communicated.  Of course, if you’re not engaged in person, you’re still probably going to pick up on more than you would over social media.  Being Relational, however, you seek to pick up on 100% of the information being communicated.  That means that on top of just showing up physically, you have to be committed to being engaged with the other person in a way that goes beyond reflexively nodding as the other person talks.  You have to really be present.

You have had the experience of talking to another and you just know they do not hear a word you are saying. They are not present and their non-presence triggers a habitual conflict response in you. Being present means that you are physically, mentally, emotionally, right there with the other person. You know when someone is present with you and reciprocally they know when you are present with them. It takes effort. Your effort is an act of generosity on your part, giving of yourself. Being relational means you do it anyway, even if there is apparently no gain to be had for yourself in doing it, nor any discernable reciprocity from the other in that moment. Being relational means you do it anyway because you believe in the benefits it will provide to yourself and to the other person.

There are two types of presence: physical and mental.  Assuming that you are physically present (i.e in the same physical space as the other person), catching all of the information being given to you requires you to be also mentally present. This may be much harder. Being present mentally requires concentration. You are awake. You are alert and open to what unfolds, open to reality as it really is. You know your body and your mind and you know what you need in order to be awake. If your brain is fuzzy and you are sleepwalking through your day, you can’t be engaged. This doesn’t mean that you are manic, always on, wired, or hyperactive. You are awake and alert when you are with others–in a way that lets them know that you are with them, that you are present.

Part of being present mentally and emotionally, in the sense of being there for others, is being attentive. When you are with others in a situation where you are expected to be mentally present, you make it a point to give your attention to them. Often it’s easy to show up and then mentally check out and be somewhere else entirely. If you are nodding and saying “Uh-huh” reflexively, habitually, without awareness of what you are nodding and saying “Uh-huh” to, then you aren’t attentive. Or if you say “Uh-huh” dismissively because you are in tunnel vision for getting what you want and the other person is just getting in your way, you aren’t attentive to the other. Either way, you sow the seeds of conflict with others with your lack of attention.

If you are automatically saying “No” or reflexively thinking “That’s ridiculous. Stupid. Here we go again,” you also are not attentive and you are sowing the seeds of conflict with others with your lack of attention. When people feel dismissed, they will push back stronger, or go elsewhere to be against you. Keeping this in mind is good motivation for you to give others your attention in the moment of interaction. But giving others your full attention is never easy. It can drift away in a daydream or be lost in an instant as you react to a distracting stimulus. Focusing your attention is in many ways the fundamental skill of being relational. It takes mental discipline; it takes effort.

So… when engaged with others, you ignore your cell phone. You close your laptop, your tablet or any other device dividing your attention. Your eyes focus on others, noticing their expression, their eyes, mouth, posture, and gestures. You stop thinking. You make mental and emotional space for the other to enter your experience. You don’t analyze, interpret, or prepare to respond. With your full attention given, you can listen to others.

When you’re engaged, you pick up on the full 100% of information that the other is trying to communicate with you.  Why settle for less?