Read time: 2.5 minutes

Conversational Presence

Jun 14 / Ernest Wiggins

I taught full-time for 28 years but off and on at various levels and capacities for 50 years. I started as a 5th-grade mathematics teacher in a summer camp at my former grammar school in Washington, D.C. That’s a lot of roll calls over the years.

I didn’t need 50 years to figure out the difference between being “here” and being “present,” even though I wouldn’t discover those labels until I was a teacher. Some of my students were indeed in their seats during class, but they were still absent. Others were more engaged — attentive and responsive. They were present and, as one might expect, did better in comparison.

Being in attendance, but not engaged isn’t restricted to school children as full-grown adults can be sitting in the closest of proximities and not in one another’s presence.

It’s common, and because attention is a commodity that so many people are chasing, it’s understandable that holding another’s attention can be challenging, and giving another your full attention might be off-putting in a world where time or attention is subdivided to a granular level.

Here and There

A 2017 Harvard Business Review article examined this “here but not present” phenomenon in the workplace. One expert described the impact on staff as “both hard and frustrating.” Executive coach Sabina Nawaz said, “When someone is not fully present, it erodes the quality of what you say.”

I agree. To me, “presence” means responding, retaining, and showing others they are heard or understood, even if understanding doesn’t lead to agreement.

Recalling past exchanges can be efficient and gives conversants a reference point for continued exchange. Being present seems more productive than just sharing space. It means building, not rehashing.

I remember a friend stopping in mid-conversation once to say my listening so intently made him feel conspicuous. I’m still unpacking that one.

I’ve known folks with healthy brains who repeat themselves from one occasion to the next, with no apparent recollection, simply not caring if they have or haven’t told this story or quip before. Is it self-centeredness, or are they just filling in time? I’m not sure.

Now and Then

I may be more sensitive to conversational absence because I was this kind of attention abuser for quite a while – only partly listening, waiting to speak, talking over others, and substituting my language for theirs.

I attribute this now to a bit of social anxiety, but before I had a label to attach to it, I became aware of the negative effect it was having on others and how off-putting it was. I worked hard to become a “listener,” not just a “hearer, “ and I got good at it. It especially was a prize asset during my stint as a news reporter.

I understand when folks with healthy brains recount the same stories over and over or ask the same questions repeatedly — the older my tribe gets, the more often this seems to happen. 

However, being present is so much more affirming than simply speaking and hearing. We feel seen and valued when friends can pick up where they left off. That’s how we respect one another, and it’s so needed in today’s world.

© Katerina Holmes from Pexels

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About the blogger

Ernest Wiggins, Writer / Independent Scholar

Ernest L. Wiggins is a professor emeritus of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina. For nearly 30 years, Wiggins taught professional journalism, news media, and community engagement, public opinion and persuasion, and mass media criticism, among other courses.

His research interests focused on mass media’s representation of marginalized communities, primarily news agencies. A native of Washington, D.C., Wiggins was a reporter and editor at the Columbia Record and The State newspapers before joining the faculty at USC, where he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

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