10 Tips for Staying Present + Focused with Others this Holiday Season

As a psychotherapist, the scope of my job is to be present with people who are hurting or struggling in some way, help them make new connections, understand their emotions, and challenge old (perhaps unhelpful) ways of thinking. In essence, it is my responsibility to be present, fully connected, and engaged with the person sitting across from me.

I tend to do a pretty decent job of being fully present in sessions with clients, and yet it occurred to me that there are times in my personal life when I am anywhere but focused on the conversation going on right in front of me. Does this sound familiar at all? If so, read on.

It is human nature for our minds to wander. "What do I need to pick up from the store for dinner?" "What did my husband really mean by what he said to me yesterday?" "Did I leave the coffee pot on again?" When you are unaware of the direction of your thoughts, and not fully present, it can seem like an entire movie played in your head and before you know it, you're at the end credits, asking the person in front of you "Wait, what? Can you repeat that?" You may have completely glossed over what they just said because your mind was somewhere else. There can be any number of consequences to this, but I believe one of the biggest, is a loss of connection. People tend to be fairly smart. They can tell when you are there, like really there, and when you're simply...well, not.

It boils down to this: when you attempt to be in more than one place at a time mentally, something is lost. When it comes to conversation and being present with someone else, it will almost always be the connection that suffers.

Here are 10 practical tips to help you get more connected, right now:

  1. Turn off and tune in. Eliminate the extra noise when possible. Turn the TV off, the radio down, put your smartphone away. My favorite trick is to put the phone in another room so you aren't even tempted to peek.

  2. Notice where your mind tends to wander. Acknowledge and return to the conversation.

  3. Take a breath, or ten, or twenty. By slowing down, increasing your oxygen, and lowering any heightened emotions that may be present, you're activating your prefrontal cortex (the place where you do all your rational thinking). By doing this, it will be easier to focus. You will then be better able to be present and respond with rational thought.

  4. Be genuine, if you're struggling with your focus, it is okay to say that. As I mentioned before, most people can tell when you have checked out anyway.

  5. Find an anchor and use it to your advantage (your breath, the other person's voice, the tips of your fingers lightly pressed together). This can decrease the likelihood of your mind wandering to other topics.

  6. Make a list of all the important things to do, buy, handle, think about, etc. before you engage in conversation, when possible. This mindful de-cluttering can help you remain more grounded in the conversation at hand.

  7. Eye contact: use it and keep it throughout the course of your conversation.

  8. Use paraphrasing to help you clarify what you are hearing. This will help you stay present and has the bonus effect of letting the other person know you are making an effort to understand what they are saying. Simply repeat back to the other person what you heard (in your own words.)

  9. Download a mindfulness app to help you get more familiar and comfortable with being in the present moment. (CALM and Headspace are two of my favs!)

  10. Ask open ended questions. Borrow a page from the field of journalism and start your questions with Who, What, When, Where, Why.

Being fully present is one of the best gifts you can give someone. Remember that you can access this power of connection at any time with anyone you choose. Give these tips a shot, and notice the instant boost in your relationships!

Nicolette Mireles is a licensed psychotherapist working in the greater Chicagoland area.