Are we distracted or fully present when we’re with other people? The difference has everything to do with creating margin in our lives.
Making Ourselves Available
Has anybody ever told you, “You must be so busy?”
It happens to me. Sometimes I actually am quite busy, but other times I just like to feel important! I like having a schedule full of goals, projects, phone calls and meetings.
However, there are times when busyness doesn’t feel so good. I remember a time when I had a friend over a number of years ago, and I just felt constantly distracted. I didn’t do a great job listening to him. A while later, my friend actually told me that he felt devalued—almost like I was rushing him out the door. He told me he didn’t feel like coming back again.
I felt terrible, and I apologized to him. It was a big mistake to treat my friend in this way.
Just last month, I had lunch with that same friend, and it was totally different. I sat with him, present and fully engaged. We were able to connect about a number of matters on a deep level. Toward the end of our lunch, I asked him, “Anything else going on for you?” And I sat and listened, until we were ready to go.
You know what? Both of these meetings with my friend took the exact same amount of time. A little over an hour. But the first time my friend walked away deflated, and the second time he felt connected to me.
We all know that leadership and life are full of responsibilities, things to do and challenges from every angle. We all have limited time, and we can’t do everything—nor should we! But I’m learning how important it is to be available and present with people, when I’m with them.
So here are some practical ideas I’ve been learning about how to be available and present with people, while I’m with them:
Put aside devices, for the most part.
I try not to look at my cell phone or go on social media when I’m catching up with someone socially. Of course, it may be different if it’s a work-related meeting and we need to stay in touch with other coworkers and tasks. And I personally find it OK to look at my phone toward the end of the meeting. If in doubt, I try to ask for permission as a gesture of respect.
Ask good questions.
At the beginning of the meeting, I could ask, “What’s the biggest thing going on for you right now?” or “What is the most important thing you’d want to talk about?” At the end of the meeting, I might ask, “Is there anything else on your mind?”
Follow up with a short email.
If we can’t cover everything, I can send a note communicating “I’d like to hear more,” and inviting them to continue the dialogue over email.
One thing about email: While it’s generally not as effective as phone or in-person meetings, it can still go a long way in the hands of responsive and intentional leaders. Over the past decade, I’ve developed a friendship with one of my wife’s former mentors. I’ve actually only met him in person one time, but he’s been so consistent about responding to our group email updates that he’s become a regular presence in my life. I now consider him to be a trusted mentor, and he’s been a huge source of encouragement to me.
And if I really had to credit our friendship to one thing, it would be how many consistent emails he’s sent to us. Most of them were short messages, but those have demonstrated engagement beyond nearly anyone else. Many people read emails, but by simply taking a few extra seconds to write back, he’s cultivated a deeper relationship. He’s made himself available for my wife and me.
I can think of other examples. An older woman I know barely uses email, but she writes to us once a month. She makes the effort to write thoughtful messages to us, although it hurts her fingers to type because of a physical condition she has. We’re not talking about things that only tech-savvy leaders can accomplish. The leaders I mentioned find a way to work past the discomfort and manage their busy schedules. They find a way to make time for the people and things that matter most. Each of us can do it!
But where do we start, when life is full or feels overwhelming?
Again, this isn’t about trying to do everything, or to meet every need around us. In fact, sometimes being present and available for people means that we actually need to take on less. If I’m constantly distracted or thinking about the next meeting or project, that’s a sign that I might be taking on too much.
The key for some of us might be to cut down a bit, and create more margin in our lives and schedules. Here are some ideas for how to do that:
We can try to block out at least two hours in our weekly schedules for unscheduled things.
I literally choose a two- or three-hour time window during one day of the week, and put a “?” next to it. Then I see what happens. If something comes up that day, I’ll use that time for it. If not, I’ll initiate some communication to people, or take care of something important that I’ve been putting off. Or some weeks, I’ll just rest or do something nice for myself.
We can try to schedule short breaks in between phone calls or meetings, even if they’re only 15 minutes.
This gives us some flexibility and breathing room in case things come up, and so our appointments don’t feel rushed.
We can schedule “office hours.”
I know some managers and pastors who hold weekly time blocks when people can drop in or call about anything on their mind. My team leaders do this. Even if this is only 90 minutes a week, it communicates that we’re available and not too busy for others.
You might be able to tell that I’m a planner, and I like to be scheduled. It helps me to get projects done, and I do think it’s a strength…but it has shortcomings.
Over-planning can be like tunnel vision. I can come up with a decent plan for anything, but so often the best results come from adjustments, revisions, mistakes and feedback from other people along the way. I have to not get so locked into my plan or schedule that I lack openness and flexibility. I have to step back from my desire to control situations, and allow space for myself and others to breathe a little.
When we build margin into our lives, it’s a humble acknowledgment that there are things we can’t foresee, and that we don’t yet know. It’s an open-hearted posture that’s willing and ready to be taught—by whatever each day and week might bring.
Thank you for reading this series on productivity and communication. As always, feel free to share any ideas you’ve found helpful, or topics you’d like to discuss!
This article originally appeared here.