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Put Down Your Phone: Why Presence Is the Best Gift You’ll Ever Give

“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

The only thing worse than not listening to someone is pretending to listen.

Giving the vague murmur of agreement, or a quick nod to communicate “Yes, I’m listening, totally,” when really, we’re not.

I remember vividly a dinner I had with friends about four years ago. I’d been backpacking in New Zealand for twelve months and had just returned to the UK. Traveling in the car to my friend’s house, I imagined how the night would look…

There would be lots of laughter (it was always side-splitting when we all got together).

There would be lots of hugging (I hadn’t seen them for a whole year after all)!

There would be lots of storytelling (I would get to share my epic adventure).

Did all of this happen? To some extent, yes, but not how I had imagined.

In fact, I left feeling a little miffed, a little gutted.

At first, I couldn’t work out why.

My friends were the same old fun-to-be-around people.

Despite ‘finding myself’ while traveling (I joke), I felt I was pretty much the same old person.

So what was different?

It hit me.

The constant. Mobile. Phones.

The entire evening was tainted by endless selfies, videos, status updates, incoming phone calls, outgoing phone calls, and notifications.

Distraction, after distraction, after distraction.

There were moments you could have heard a pin drop as the four of us, faces illuminated by the glow of the mobile phones, sat, hands glued to our devices. Ironically, telling anyone who was on Facebook and Instagram that night what a terrific time we were having.

To begin with, I was angry with my friends. But sooner I realized I was really angry with myself. I was equally guilty, and people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones after all.

What could have been, rather, what should have been, an evening of being deeply present with one another, each one of us offering our full and undivided attention, was tainted by technology, spoiled by social media, marred by meddling mobiles.

Backpacking was more campfires and deep life conversations below the stars, so this evening was felt like a return to reality. Most of us struggle to put our flipping phones down.

If we stop and think about it, what message does it send to the human beings in front of us when we are busy on our phones?

I made a vow that evening to get better at this, to be more present with friends and family, anyone I’m communicating with.

I didn’t want to make anyone feel how I felt that evening—unheard and unimportant.

Zoom forward to today and, well, I’m much better but far from perfect.

Technology certainly is a huge barrier to presence, but it’s not the main culprit.

The main culprit lives between our ears, the mind.

The mind is a lot like a talking alarm clock, and you have no control over when it goes off and what it will say.

For example, I can be sitting face to face with someone, physically a few centimeters in distance, but consciously, a world away.

Instead of listening to what the person sitting across from us is saying, we listen to our thoughts.

Hey, did I leave the oven on this morning when I left the house?

I hope my breath doesn’t stink.

Why is that stranger in the corner laughing—is my underwear tucking into my shirt?

Or literally, anything else. Anything. Any other thought can pop up at any moment, pulling my focus momentarily away from the person in front of me.

Luckily for us, people can’t always be certain when we’re not being fully present with them, especially if we’re an expert fake listener, able to give a very convincing response like “Yeah, sure, I get you.” Occasionally, I sense that the person I’m talking to senses I haven’t been listening. I feel bad and forgive myself for being human, before returning to the conversation.

On the other hand, when someone is really listening to us, fully present with us in the moment, we can be certain. Without a doubt, because we feel it.

It’s tough to put such moments into words, but you just know.

Moments when we’re fully present with someone and it’s reciprocated, it’s like magic, like the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the first time you fall in love and you just feel connected; you feel the dance of communication, the resonating, the synchronicity, the oneness.

That’s it. This, for me, is what presence is all about. The oneness.

A few of my favorite ways to get present and cultivate oneness are:

Eye contact

The eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Giving eye contact really lets people know they’re being heard.

Listening to understand instead of listening to respond

We’re stuck in our heads if we’re listening purely to plan our response. Tuning into a person’s words and also how they say the words has greatly helped me to connect with people.

Limiting distractions.

Technology, off. The world can wait.

Remember the good old days when only landline phones existed and if you weren’t at home people would leave a message and patiently wait for a response? Bliss. Nowadays, we’re available on mobile, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, email… the list goes on. Flight mode is my friend. Anytime I want to get present, flight mode is activated.

Facial expressions.

When I really listen to someone, I find I empathize with them so much more. Naturally my facial expressions will reflect this, communicating I understand how they’re feeling. We all wish to feel understood.

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be flying back to the UK to spend time with my family. In fact, this will be the first Christmas in six years we’ll all be together (my dear parents, older sister, younger brother, and me).

A part of me is sad knowing that around the world, there will be families sitting in their living rooms, surrounded by their nearest and dearest, but not really being there.

Distracted either by their own minds, their mobiles, or maybe their new presents.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Board games can be played and conversations can be had, with presence, together.

In truth, we needn’t wait until the holidays to connect in this way, as any moment, any conversation, offers a chance to be present with each other. But the holidays, for me, really are prime opportunities.

To be surrounded by the ones we love most and be with them more than just physically, but emotionally and spirituality too, well, this is worth more than any gift you’ll give or receive this year. This holiday season, give presence.

About Will Aylward

Will Aylward lives to help others and spends his days coaching people to become more confident in themselves and their ability. Will's loves are travel, drinking good coffee, turning strangers into friends, and making music. Will lives in Germany with his partner (in crime), Yvonne. Visit him at willaylward.com.

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  • Ella

    Today I am grateful for my brother who I don’t see very often. I opened my door to find him doing my garden for me after working all day doing other peoples gardens. While he finds it hard to show his love in traditional ways this was his way of saying I love you and for that I am truly grateful. It’s the little things we do for others that touch the heart and mean the most and today I was reminded of that

  • Jessica Laleman

    I’m thankful for my family. All they do for me and all the happy memories we have together.

  • Phyllis Holmes

    Gratitude is in the giving from the depths of your heart and already it floats back.

  • Julie

    I am thankful that we can share Thanksgiving with family and that they are all healthy. Also thankful for all the food that so many people worked so hard to get from the farmers to the bakers, etc. So much to be thankful for even the things we take for granted such as water, clean air, etc.

    I’d love to have a copy of the Gratitude journal and quotes. I love quotes especially uplifting ones! Thanks.

  • Great article and so important. We’re becoming more backward in our human connectedness as we progress in our technology. How sad. What will the next generation be like? It’s a bit scary that the main form of connections are through screens and technology to the detriment of authentic human connection. And then when we do connect face-to-face we’re ‘not really there’. How do we change this? By realizing how lousy this is and what we’re losing and giving up; and then by being intentional about our social and relationship skills. We must decide that real people come before screen people. And then comes the work on improving our listening skills.

  • De

    I’m thankful for friends that stand by you even in the hard times

  • Dee Cooper-Wells

    What a wonderful article and a wonderful idea for a journal. Too many people focus on the things that are going wrong in their life which only feeds the negativity. The universe responds to what we feed it, so we can choose to feel sorry for ourselves in adversity or we can see the beautiful blessings within the lessons and become grateful for the little things in life. I am eternally grateful for the beautiful surrounding images of nature at my back and front door. I am also grateful for quiet reflective times.
    Dee

  • Darlene

    Love this article! What an awesome essay on connecting!

  • Just fabulous! I’ve always said that presence is the key to any relationship. I would have been just as mad as you were with my friends because I find it so rude when people are on their phones when they are with someone. It’s one thing to use your phone but it’s another to engage with it more than the person right in front of you. So I would definitely be offended, yet this is the culture we live in nowadays. The best thing we can do, and your right Will, is to be conscious and aware. Because at the end of the day people will always remember you by the way you make them feel.

  • Hey Makayla,
    Thank you for your comment! Wow, yes, you’re totally right, we always remember people by the way them make us feel.

  • Thank you, Darlene!

  • Harriet, 100% Real people come before screen people. A few years ago I was working in a School and had a particularly tricky class of students. It was a form group, so had ages 11 years all the up to 18. There was some BIG personalities in there, so naturally, lots of clashes. When I took over, there were no friendships, no connection, the children sat on their phones (their previous form tutor allowed this). I didn’t. I shook things up. One day I, as a bit of an experiment, I asked the students to create a column of chairs, so that we had 8 chairs in a line, facing another 8 chairs. I invited people to take a seat. At this point I had 16 very nervous looking students looking up at me. I told them we were going to play a little game. To win the game was simple. All they had to do was sit on the chair, facing the person sat on the chair opposite and have a conversation for 60 seconds. Sounds easy enough right? There was one more thing. They could not break eye-contact. :O
    Now you can imagine the response… They squirmed, they resisted, they struggled with this level of connection, especially with people they really hadn’t gotten to know. Something beautiful happened a few minutes into the exercise, after the pairs had been mixed up and people had completed a few rounds of the challenge. The energy in the room changed. People were smiling, there was the sound of laughter, friendships were forming. The group blossomed and become a beautiful, group of young people, who looked out for one another and excelled academically but more importantly, socially. When we finished the challenge I said something the lines of ”You can’t beat what you just experienced, real, honest, raw, human connection”.

  • Sol Connor

    I resonate with your message completely. Phones are great for communicating with people you cannot be with at that time, finding out information and for not getting yourself lost, but communicating with people you are not with and ignoring the ones you are, it needs to stop! And over dinner, I always insist phones must go off so we can really connect and be present with each other. In fact, giving presence is so important to me I even started my own small business about it! I used to manage a charity shop and I was amazed by how much stuff people would buy each other at Christmas, donate in the run up to Christmas to make way for new stuff, and then donate in January everything they didn’t really want. Bad for business, but I always used to hope people would do other things than waste their time and money buying stuff for each other that they didn’t need, like spend time with each other, or volunteer or reconnect with family or neighbours, or anything that represents the true spirit of Christmas instead of buying stuff! http://www.presencenotpresents.org is an alternative gift shop where people can buy each other experience gifts so they can collect memories instead of things, of give each other virtual charity gifts instead. .

  • Marta

    This Articles is so true. Today’s society behaviour, that „unpresence” brings to my mind animation „Wall-E”.
    I had similar situation to author: went to China two months back. It was my first visit in Asia,and truly journey of my life so far. I came back full of stories, with hundreds of pictures(photography is my love) excited to share with them.
    We sat around computer, I started slide show, and after barely few photos I noticed that my partner is texting, not even looking at screen. I felt totally unimportant. I closed the slideshow and stopped telling stories, there wasn’t point. Partner didn’t even protest to much.
    I find especially social media as poison to face to face relations (and relationships). I would be hypocritical if I said I never done it, I was lost in it totally for some time, yet realised that’s not the way to make real connections with others. Unfortunately I feel now, that I am almost alone, my awakening made me feel lonely in crowd.

  • Alex Mill

    I once had a conversation with a young woman who was developing an app that would shut smartphones down during periods of time. So users wouldn’t have access to distractions.

    Her story about the impetus for the idea came from her family. Her cousins, after being given iPads, left their playful, enthusiastic childhood games overnight and turned into zombies who stared endlessly into their iPads.

    I told her that our devices are merely that — devices. Just like money is money. Like money, our devices can be used for “good” or “evil.” It’s really up to us. The ability to direct our attention and use them for good is our greatest responsibility. And one we must learn how to do.

    Unfortunately, no one taught us how. And technology is everywhere and we must deal with it.

    Thank you for thoughtfully shedding light on this topic, Will.

    In lovingkindness,
    Alex