Maya Angelou suggests there are four questions that we’re all unconsciously asking each other all the time.
We ask the people we love, we ask the people who matter to us professionally, and on a broader level, we ask the people we encounter as we go about our everyday lives: the cashier who takes your coffee order, the jogging neighbor you wave to from the car on the way to work, the elderly woman sitting across from you on the train.
The four questions rarely get asked with words, just as they’re rarely answered with words.
They’re almost always silent questions, because they’re almost always unconscious.
When the silent answer to each of the four silent questions is a definitive YES, the love (or basic sense of humanity, in the broader examples) in the relationship becomes more palpable and is in turn immediately felt.
In a romantic context, when the questions go unanswered, the person unconsciously asking them typically becomes increasingly distant, grows restless in the relationship, and often starts seeking drama and distraction to get attention and feel more alive.
In the broader context, people who don’t get an answer to these questions (or worse, who receive a ‘no’) feel increasingly disconnected from any sense of community.
Here are the 4 critical questions:
- Do you see me?
- Do you care that I’m here?
- Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
- Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?
Whether it’s your kids, your colleagues, your partner, or really anyone in your community, when someone feels genuinely appreciated by you, it’s because you treat them in such a way that affirmatively answers each question pretty consistently. It’s because when you look at them, you actually take the time to see them.
One reason why some people love dogs so much?
Dogs answer the four questions with a big, “Yes!” near constantly. Those furry little spiritual masters are always in the present moment, so their quality of connection is always heightened (subsequently, so is the level of palpable connection they emit).
Unlike our K-9 counterparts, we regularly slip out of the present moment and go somewhere else.
It at least makes more sense when we evade the present moment during ostensibly mundane activities, like an unnecessary meeting, doing laundry, our commute, etc. But invariably, the habit of not being present spills over into the moments we really mean to be present for:
- The love of your life walks into the room before bed and you barely look up from your phone.
- You meet your best friend for brunch and go through the motions of the hug, the ‘you look so cute’ and the ‘it took forever to get here!’ without actually feeling much.
- You’re tying your daughter’s shoe and when you’re done, you get up to reach for her packed lunch and hand it to her while you’re simultaneously grabbing your bag and keys, all without ever looking at her.
We all do this. We blaze through darling moments every single day.
Sometimes we don’t really remember much about our week because we just weren’t fully there.
But how do we answer these questions constantly?
I’m not encouraging intense stare downs with every single human you encounter, but what I do hear so often in my work is this:
She’s looking at me, but it’s like she’s looking past me.
I know he cares and I objectively know he loves me more than anything, but he’s so checked out.
I just want to shake him sometimes like, wake up!
If you see someone, let them know you see them.
Slow down, and though it feels strange to write because it’s so simple: take a second to actually look at another person.
Just one extra second. Literally.
And on the topic of literally, certainly if you love someone, show some love! Literally. Let the love you feel show on your face, in your eyes and in your quality of presence.
Slowing down and taking the one extra second is how you connect.
It’s this incredibly simple part of the human experience that’s getting lost in the modern rush. Taking the one extra second is the kind of quality that shapes your mood for the better after a bad news day (or bad news week, or bad news year), it’s the secret to the people we find so charming, it’s what the best leaders do — helping people feel seen and valued will totally shift your life.
We can all get by without connection, at least for a little while, but if we really want to thrive, we have to connect to each other.
Connection is not based on how much time we spend with someone or what we do with them, connection is always based on quality of presence.
This is why we fall in love with people who make us feel alive, because on some level, we’re all desperate to be more present.
Being present doesn’t require meditation, deep breaths, or anything like that. It’s just a one second decision, “Ok, I’m gonna be present now.”
It’s not a decision you make in the morning and then never have to think about again, it’s a decision you make over and over and over again throughout the day. Ooops, wandered away from the present moment? No probs. The return flight is one second long.
The four questions are impossible for you to answer unless you’re present.
If you’re at all interested in experimenting with the idea that people are always asking the four questions, for one week, use an image of the number “4” as the wallpaper on your phone. Let the number be a cue to help you remember to answer the questions, not out loud, but on your face, in your touch, in your eyes, with the quality of your presence.
Taking the one extra second doesn’t have to be constant to be successful (i.e. to have an impact on your quality of connection to yourself and others). Just do it as you remember to, do it as you please, and that will be enough.
Katherine Schafler is an NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker. For more of her work, join her newsletter community, read her blog, or follow her on Instagram.