Over the weekend, I heard an older man sharing with a group of people two pieces of good news. The first was that his daughter had recently published a book on the need for civility in our society. He spoke at length about her inspiration for the book and shared some details about an upcoming book signing event that she would be holding in town. He was obviously quite proud of her accomplishment. Then, as though the second piece of good news had almost slipped his mind, he added:
“Oh. And I’m going to turn 97 years old this week.”
I was floored by his sharpness of mind and his obvious good spirits at such an advanced age–especially in comparison, since my own father-in-law, almost twenty years younger, is struggling so much in his recovery from a devastating stroke back in November.
When I had the chance, I came up to the man and shook his hand, wishing him a happy birthday. And I was floored again.
The entire time we spoke, he held my hand–and more impressively, he held my gaze. The look in his eyes as I spoke to him, and the look on his face as a whole, conveyed such a complete sense of attention to my every word, as though I were offering him the most wonderful of birthday gifts just in speaking with him for a few moments.
He was fully engaged in every word I said.
Thinking back on that experience today, and thinking about what it means to live deliberately, I decided to focus on how I interact with people throughout the day–making a conscious effort to hold eye contact, to listen attentively, and to respond with interest and concern to the person in front of me.
And to do just that and nothing else–too often I am guilty of “multitasking” while someone is talking to me, be that in my office or in my kitchen. For today, I would practice focused, engaged conversation.
What was interesting about this experiment was what a noticeable difference it made in the very first conversation I had at work. I ran into a colleague in the break room as we were both filling coffee pots with water. We exchanged a few passing words, which is certainly not unusual for the two of us, but what was different is that within moments, he was telling me about his plans to retire, perhaps at the end of this year. I learned far more about about this man in five minutes this morning than I have learned about him in seven years working in the same building on the same floor.
Not all of my interactions throughout the day were that noteworthy–and to be honest, I found myself several times drifting back into my old habit of half-listening. But each time I brought myself back to a more engaged interaction, I could feel a shift–nothing radical, but something would shift in what I was hearing, what I was feeling, and unless I am completely mistaken, how others were interacting with me.
It’s close to dinner time, and I have a pot of soup on the stove. In an hour or so, I will be sitting around the table with my family, sharing a meal. Let’s see how the conversation goes–and how good the food tastes–with a little engaged, deliberate listening.
I read Martin Buber’s _I and Thou_ far too long ago to pull any quotations out of memory, but this post reminds me of that seminal work. What a great self-challenge! I’ll join you in it today.
Thanks for the prompt. I’ve read far more about Buber than I have by Buber (by way of Levinas, mostly). I and Thou is a book I’ve had a hard time getting into, but I’m going to pull it off the shelf and give it a go.
I am happy to report that when I was visiting in Atlanta a week ago, I ran into the same gentleman, who turned 98 last week. He is still as attentive and engaged in conversation as he was last year.