I was at an event a couple of weeks ago in which I met quite a few high-profile authors whom I admire and whose books I have on my shelves. One such author and I struck up a conversation when we found ourselves face-to-face, crunched into an awkward corner of a crowded room.
“So, are you a writer?” this author asked me, and as I answered yes, briefly explaining the biography I’d written about the Luthers, I noticed something right away. The person I was speaking to was not looking at me. As I nervously offered a quick summary of my book, I saw that the person’s eyes were gazing over my shoulder, darting back and forth around the room, scanning the crowd before flitting back to my face.
The person was nodding, even responding to me with affirmative words — “Really? That sounds interesting!” — but I saw that this writer was clearly not listening, not really. This person was engaged in the act of conversing with me, but wasn’t actually participating or present in the conversation.
“Maybe they were just feeling socially awkward,” a friend generously suggested later when I told her about the incident and how stupid it had made me feel. “It’s a hectic conference. Maybe they were feeling overwhelmed or oversocialized and were just looking for a way out.”
Maybe. But I don’t think so. And how do I know? How can I be so sure about this? I know because I’ve been that very person – the person scanning the room, eyes darting from face to face. I’ve been the one looking over another person’s shoulder, nodding, feigning interest, all the while scheming my get-away, hunting for a better option — someone more important to talk to, someone more interesting, someone I know or, better yet, someone I want to know me. I’ve been the person who is in the act of conversing while not actually participating or present in the conversation at all.
Last Saturday morning over coffee, my friend Viviana told me about her grandmother’s memorial service, which had taken place in her hometown in California the same weekend I’d been at the writers’ conference. Viviana had given a eulogy about what she would most remember about her grandmother.
Her grandmother, Viv told me, had always offered her full presence and attention to whomever she was with in the moment, no matter the circumstances. “She always looked right at you, right into your eyes, when you were talking to her,” Viviana recalled. “She was focused entirely on you, totally attentive. She made you feel like you were the only person in the room.”
Viviana’s grandmother wasn’t famous. She didn’t publish bestselling books. She didn’t have thousands of social media followers. As far as I know, she never spoke to a full house packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an auditorium. Yet she knew something valuable, something that matters, something both the author at the conference and I need to pay attention to, which is this:
Nothing is more important than our presence. When we give someone else our full attention, our full self, even if only for a few minutes, we give that person a precious gift.
People may or may not remember our words. They may or may not remember what we say or what we write, the books we publish or the fancy presentations we make, our lyrical metaphors or our clever turns of phrase. But one thing they will remember for sure is whether we were wholly present with them.
They will remember if we made them feel like the only person in the room.