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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2022

Learning to Give the Present of Being Present

Joseph Beckman


  • The article discusses the negative impact of technology on personal relationships and the importance of being present in the moment.
  • Constant phone use can affect relationships and lead to a lack of emotional connection.
  • Putting away phones and engaging in meaningful interactions creates emotional boundaries and strengthens relationships.
Learning to Give the Present of Being Present

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There was a magnet on the side of our refrigerator in the house where my two (very active, and sometimes daredevil, but they came by that honestly) sons came of age. It read, “Raising Children Is Like Being Pecked to Death by Chickens.”

It always got a laugh, but after 18 years of doing just that, their mom and I were no longer the close couple we were 25 years earlier. We went our separate ways amicably, each taking time and space to hit the reset button and heal.

We had lunch recently, which we do on occasion, although less often than in the years before each settled into a new relationship with a new partner. I began lunch, as is my custom the past five years or so in one-on-one situations, by putting my phone conspicuously face down on the table.

The technology has changed, of course, and it is a far cry from the heavy “ultra-portable” Nokia 101 phones we purchased in the early 1990s. At the time, my wife was a busy realtor, and I just liked new technology. I found a 2-for-1 deal, gaining in the transaction the ability to call from the car and say, “I’ll be 10 minutes late!”

She asked why I flipped my phone. I told her it was something I picked up when I started dating again, as the number of women who seemed to check their phones during a meal felt startling. She, good naturedly, suggested it may have something to do with how disappointing a date I may have become in my dotage. That, however, led to a deeper conversation.

As our sons were reaching school age, cell phones were becoming ubiquitous. Both of us were regularly on the phone in the car. Often, the last parent home would be on the phone as he or she entered the back door.

The drill—for both of us—was the same. A wave hello. A roll of the eyes or hand gesture to indicate our client was “chatty.” The talker then pointed upstairs to signal the conversation would complete while the “last home” spouse changed from work clothes to comfortable clothes. (These were the days before “business casual”!) I over-compensated with the “head tousle” for the boys and the “drive-by peck on the cheek” for their mom.

On one level, this worked. On another, it was horrible.

The unspoken message to our clients was, “I have no boundaries. If you need me, I’m here.” Accessibility to one’s clients was worn like a badge of honor.

The message to the other spouse—and to our sons—was different. It said, “The three of you are second. I’ll get to you after work.”

If We Knew Then What We Know Now

In the 1990s, and even as the internet took off between 2000 and 2010, we had only a superficial awareness of the potential negative impact of technology on our well-being. It was all so . . . new.

I was an “early adopter” of technology. I blame horrible handwriting, being forced to take typing the summer after eighth grade, and having a best friend whose older sister worked for IBM. The by-product was that one of the first PCs was in his basement when we were in college. Since that time (January 1985), I have done all my composition on a computer. In fact, I was so taken by my ability to “edit,” I spent my graduation money on a PCjr (look it up).

Six years later, my early adopter attitude toward technology was cemented after I purchased a Compaq laptop and convinced my firm to buy a docking station so I could use it as my desktop. For perspective, it cost almost as much as I paid for a car after graduating from law school. Also, maybe 1 in 10 of the 250+ lawyers at the firm were using computers on their desk at that time.

My technology skills helped me land a position as the first lawyer for a publicly traded e-commerce company. This company was doing cutting-edge global sales of digital downloads of software. We were the “go to” online retailer for companies, such as Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, because it was too hard for those companies to figure out and handle “in house” at the time.

One of our strengths was collecting and analyzing the data to predict and optimize the combination of colors, layouts, disclosures, and promotions that would drive close rates so that buyers would not “abandon their cart.”

We all had laptops. We “competed” over who had the most cutting-edge cell phone. In 2003, the BlackBerry was a status symbol, but then phones with color screens and virtual buttons displaced it. Then, in 2007, the iPhone proved to be the game changer.

With each advance in this hand-held technology, the intrusion on our lives expanded. We were all accessible no matter where we might be in the world at the time.

I sent contract drafts from the top of the Beartooth Pass while on trains in Germany and dozens of other places where I missed the scenery in favor of my screens. On one trip, I negotiated a contract sitting streamside as the sun rose. My wife and two exhausted Cub Scouts slept soundly in their Kamping Kabin.

This “24 / 7 / 365 accessibility” was viewed at the time as a badge of honor. What precious few of us failed to appreciate, however, was the profound impact these new tools would have on our lives and relationships.

My placement of my phone spurred a conversation about this topic over lunch. We agreed that both of us were guilty of—subconsciously—“Phubbing.” We put our phones before family. That was an honest, and sobering, moment.

A Tiny Habit Leads to a Sea Change

My undergraduate degree is in psychology. I truly could have gone either way—law school or graduate school for psychology—and what I learned from my studies has real value in my practice.

One of the psychologists who resonated for me was B.F. Skinner. His “operant conditioning” studies were crude but in some ways seem to presage the “act your way into a new way of thinking” and “tiny habits” concepts we find in modern psychology.

About 3.5 years ago, I added a new “tiny habit” to my routine. When my partner arrives at my place, or I arrive at hers, I move my phone to a place away from where we are. If it rings, and I choose, I can get to it. If it buzzes, we don’t need the distraction or intrusion. After the phone is away, I find my partner and I wait for her to put down anything she has in her hands.

We embrace and kiss. Then, I hold on.

This might be for 10 seconds or 40 seconds or two minutes. I speak softly, changing speeds on my pitches. One day it may in effect be something romantic, the next a question about her day, another one of my random snarky comments. We might hug a bit tighter or kiss again more passionately. Sometimes one of us will whisper something frighteningly politically incorrect—a favorite “shock value” trick for us both—particularly when others are present.

This ritual does not cause my mind to turn off if I am thinking about a client’s issue. It does not stop her from trying to figure out a patient’s problem, or perhaps from feeling anxious about something going on in the life of a child or family member.

What it does, however, is bring us both “into the moment.” It is a physical separation from work, and it makes us aware we are within those protective emotional boundaries. There we both may recharge in the presence of another who we know loves us unconditionally.

It gives us the space to “sharpen our saw.”