Ever get that feeling the person in front of you is there, but not there?

I’m quite guilty of causing this myself. Like those moments my kids are telling me something, and I hear, “Mom.” Because I’m too often multitasking, probably for their sakes, but I may still not be present in the moment they care about.

Or sometimes I’ve been going so hard for so long, ignoring the fact that I’m depleted or worn out or need care, my own need saps my ability to truly be present and fully give of myself. Metaphorically, I’m too hungry to be handing out food. I might make the right gestures or expressions or noises, but as far as that whole “Love must be sincere” thing (Romans 12:9 NIV)? I’m duplicitous.

Presence is something we don’t do well as a culture. (Maybe it’s just a human-being thing.) It’s a little easier to be present with our to-do list or one of 13 notifications (often giving the idea our phones are more compelling than people). Maybe we’re playing Candy Crush and a spouse decides it’s not worth the wait to talk about the day together.

Unfortunately, our lack of presence results in an entire continent of the emotionally starved. Presence is a precious form of love.

What presence is

Presence is why I ask my teens to pull out the earbuds and set down their phones when they’re with actual people. It’s the reason I’m trying more to set down my tasks and take that beat for some eye contact. Presence is about the person across from me receiving 90-100% of my mental pie graph.

I’ll define presence like this: to be wholly there.

Once, I was head down in writing a letter to my husband’s and my financial supporters for our ministry. But when my husband walked into the kitchen, he asked, “Why does your face look like it’s got its tail between its legs?”

I cast him a sheepish look. “I just declined a phone call from [a very talkative person].”

He looked at me. “You can’t be present with everyone all the time. Right now, you’re present with our supporters. By definition, being present somewhere means not being present elsewhere.” So part of presence involves boundaries. For me, that means not answering my phone when I’m in the middle of deep conversation. (My family knows this.)

Authors John and Stasi Eldredge note in Captivated, “The gift of presence is a rare and beautiful gift. To come―unguarded, undistracted―and be fully present, fully engaged with whoever we are with at that moment. When we offer our unguarded presence, we live like Jesus.”

Presence recalls the God who wasn’t content with never being seen, never touching, with a self-centered failure to engage: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG).

What does it look like to be present?

Scripturally, I find evidence that presence begins by being fully present with God. When Paul commands, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4), check out two verses before: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy…” (verse 1).

Our ability to set aside the psychological and spiritual noise of our own agendas and cravings begins with being encouraged and comforted by experiencing God’s kindness to us. Shauna Niequist writes in Present over Perfect, “What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management. And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace. ….[Present over perfect is] about rejecting the myth that every day is a new opportunity to prove our worth, and about the truth that our worth is inherent, given by God, not earned by our hustling.”

Personally, when I’m not starting my day satisfied in God, a hollowness unsteadies me. I desire fiercely to matter, for my work to matter. To be desired and appreciated, valued, attractive, and wanted. To make a difference and feel confident that I am distinctive and have something to offer. That I am received and longed for.

Hear that “approval” thread throughout? That yawning chasm in me?

Our dissatisfaction–usually believing the lies Henri Nouwen encapsulates as “I am what I do,” or what we have, or what others think of us–leaves us feeling hungry. And in that hunger, it’s hard to know how to be present with someone else.

But God responds to our hunger with unchanging, solid, satisfying value, saying:

  • Jesus has done enough.
  • God accepts us because of Jesus.
  • He gives us everything we need.

We are first loved and received by God, so we can then set aside our inner grasping, our inner noise. 

How to be present: 5 Ideas

1. Fully receive someone.

We provide that place where they can be completely themselves and completely accepted: “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). We’re a refuge, a safe place. Our affection for the person themself both trumps and dictates any agendas for them.

But relationships are two-way. So we’re not just receiving. We’re willing to allow ourselves to be known, too: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

That is, part of being present with someone is choosing not to hide. We can get honest even about our less-than-pretty parts—like our anger, fear, sadness. Or the ways we’re screwing up in present tense. (Humility makes authentic connection a lot easier in relationships.)

2. Listen well.

So often, we listen in order to respond, rather than listening to empathize or understand. But that takes a lot of work: to truly sink our imagination into someone else’s shoes, asking questions about what we don’t know.

So check your listening habits. Do you:

  • Emphasize people feeling understood, even in disagreement? (Pro tip: One-on-one discussions are better for this—no audience, no being the odd man out.)
  • Use receptive expressions (soft eyes, nodding, eye contact, uncrossed arms)?
  • Suspend judgment?
  • Communicate humility about what you don’t know, and keep a thick skin?
  • Wait after the speaker has stopped talking to see if they have more to say?
  • Listen to what’s being said, rather than planning your reply?
  • Avoid sweeping statements and inflammatory or loaded words?
  • Refrain from finishing sentences, interrupting, shaming, dominating, overtalking?

Consider what one obstacle you’d love to remove from your conversational habits in order to offer the gift of God’s tangible presence to the person across from you.

3. Ask good questions.

As we all get busier and more occupied with quick entertainment, we get less curious about each other—and the majority of others’ emotional iceberg hovering beneath the surface.

Sometimes this means asking for answers we may already know. God models this for me. I think of Him in the Garden of Eden and throughout Scripture: Where are you? What do you want Me to do for you? God’s not asking for information. He asks in order to engage with us. To connect and invite. To allow expression and desire and interpretation. And to allow us to tell our story.

I am now a question collector. What would move my understanding and compassion for this person to the next level? What would love them better?

Gently ask questions that help you both understand more:

  • What was that like?
  • What was going through your head?
  • What do you wish you/they could have said?
  • What were you hoping for?
  • What does that make you afraid of? (What were you afraid would happen?)
  • If a person expresses anger: Anger is a secondary emotion–usually occurring after fear, hurt, disappointment, rejection. What do you feel under your anger?
  • What do you feel, if it happened, would make your life sing right now?

A lot of these questions help isolate desire, including hope and fear. And those help us understand the core of what fuels and drives: the sacred ground of a person’s heart.  

4. Go one degree closer.

Call instead of text, emailing, or using social media. Video chat instead of call. Visit instead of video chat.

5. Resist lapsing into what’s comfortable rather than the other person’s needs.

Presence requires some intentionality—particularly when we’re in the stressed version of ourselves. Classic example: The other day, my husband wanted to offer me some relief by picking up our son from baseball practice. But in a stressed state, I felt uncomfortable with someone caring for me. I couldn’t be present with his question (that was even for my benefit!); I was on autopilot. I resisted his request out of habit of image-management.

Presence requires shifting our gaze from our own interior noise and the consistent pulls at our attention, toward God’s Kingdom in the person in front of us.

May you have the gift of being fully there.

Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.