What It Means to Show Up

It means different things to different people to “show up.” One doesn’t need to look hard to find the disparities. The mother “playing with her kids” while she’s frantically typing out emails on her phone. The father who’s at the soccer game but can’t remove the phone from his ear. The friend who makes it to your dinner party but takes no interest in your other guests. It goes on forever.

So what does it mean to show up? Does it require talking to everyone at every social gathering? That you never ever check your cell phone while your kids entertain themselves with Legos?

Surely, there’s a case to be made that that is what it means. It means being there as well as anyone could imagine. And for some people to not be a bubbly social butterfly who is 100% on just doesn’t cut it.

But even at my best I’m not able to be a bubbly social butterfly half as well as some are without any visible show of effort. Maybe for you, giving anything your undivided attention just doesn’t feel possible. So I think there’s something to be said for realism.

Whether or not you’ve “shown up” adequately is always a judgment call. You’ve got to make it for yourself, and others will also make it about you. The times when you think you’re being there for your daughter and she feels different are where the rubber of this whole thing meets the metaphorical road.

For me, showing up means making the best effort I know how, and hopefully to the satisfaction of the person or people I feel I’m showing up for. If I don’t feel I’m really making a strong effort but they feel I have, that’s nice but not sufficient. And if my best is not good enough to people in my life, I pray for their patience. And I’m open to making changes based on their advice.

What it comes to is that what it means to show up isn’t one thing. And this leads to a lot of heartache. But the solution to that heartache isn’t to define it down into some Platonic ideal. It’s to be honest, forthright, and ready to listen if someone asks to reconcile a disparity. And it means being willing to start that conversation, too.

What we need are frank discussions about what showing up means to everyone involved. To be honest and thorough and empathetic as we work through the difference of opinion. And showing up for that conversation is the most important thing in the world.


Why You Must Let People Check Out From Conversations

Sometimes in a conversation, especially a sensitive or heated one, you can tell you’ve hit a brick wall. When you recognize that, it is essential that you allow your conversational partner to check out of the conversation. If you don’t, it’s virtually guaranteed that something far worse than a lack of closure will be the outcome.

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Saying What You Mean

One of the deepest problems of communication is that we don’t actually mean what we say. Not in the sense of actively trying to convince others of things we don’t believe, commonly called “lying”, but in a more casual way. What I’m pointing at is the indirection of saying something that suggests the real issue or topic, but allows us to avoid taking responsibility for it.

That is a bit abstract, so here’s an example I’m guilty of a lot: I would like someone to do something, but I won’t ask for it. Instead, I’ll point to a problem or issue I have, and hope that my conversational partner will understand that I would like their help with that issue. What does this look like? When I mean, “Could you send an email to Joe and tell him what we decided?” I instead say something like “I see that we still haven’t responded to Joe’s question.” It’s reasonable to think that my partner can read the idea there, but putting that burden on them is just increasingly the likelihood of misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s not useful, and I’m communicating the wrong thing.

And while I don’t recommend that method, there are worse ones. One of the worst ways of communicating “will you help me with this issue” I remember using is the blame game. Dysfunctional relationships — most stereotypically marriages — can have this happen a lot. Rather than talking about the fact that Bob leaves his shoes in places that Sue wishes he wouldn’t, Sue will yell at Bob for being an lazy, absent-minded pig. She may not even tell him that his shoes were the issue, but instead consistently communicates to him a general disgust.

Part of the reason we’re so prone to communicating the wrong thing is that we’re not really sure what we’re meaning to communicate in the first place. It may well be the case that by the time Sue gets to talk to Bob about the problem of his shoes all she has in her mind is the fact that he’s lazy, good-for-nothing slob. It’s quite common and understandable to draw the large from the small, to proverbially “make mountains out of molehills”, and knowing you’re doing that when you are requires a great deal of discipline.

Communicating exactly what you mean is not something that’s easy to do. It’s not a switch you flip and suddenly you’ll find your communication less dysfunctional and prone to unexpected blowups. It’s a slow gradual process of learning. It’s a thing you set out to get a little bit better at, you fail to get better at, and then you try harder next time. You live that cycle a few hundred times and maybe you’ll see progress.

Clarifying what you’re really trying to communicate is an invaluable exercise. When a conversation becomes confrontational unexpectedly, there are few more effective tools than apologizing, slowing down, and expressing what you really mean. When a conversation that you think should be easy is hard, check how accurately you stated what you mean. Slowly, you’ll learn how to communicate your meaning better. If you have patience for the whole process, it pays huge dividends. Of that I am certain.