How ‘serve and return’ relationships helped build your brain architecture

brain light from side

We all want to know that our existence is noticed.


One way to know this is to see that things you do cause a reaction in others.


Once someone responds to your presence, you know you exist.


Harvard calls this the ‘serve and return’.


Everything you do is a ‘serve’ – you say and do things to see how they will be ‘returned’.


When you were a child, you were sending serves to everyone around you,
and based on how they returned it, your brain responded,
and you created beliefs about yourself.


Every one of your relationships is a serve and return relationship. 


Every one in your life is sending you ‘serves’, and looking to see how you return them.


When you are not present, you can’t return their serve.


And when you don’t return their serve, the people in your life will let you know that you are doing this by:

  1. Amping up their behavior and creating more ‘drama’ or a ruckus, or
  2. Withdrawing from you and creating stories about how little value they add to your life.


When you are with someone and glancing at your phone…

when you are thinking about something else when someone is talking…


what you are saying is that:


“Your presence is not enough for me.  I’m afraid of missing something better over there.”


The other person feels this with every cell of their body.


Your biofeedback gives them the signal of your absence.


There is no such thing as partial or half presence.
You are either ‘there’ or not.


This ‘serve and return’ doesn’t just apply to your presence with people.
Your work and art and craft feel your lack of return too.


When you think of a writer writing a fantastic novel,
a scientist discovering a new revelation,
a musician surrendering to a new riff of music…


Do you see them wanting to be somewhere else?
Do you think they are thinking about what else they should be doing?


How often do you allow yourself to just surrender to being with that person,
or doing just that one thing.


At Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries, there is a rule:
You don’t walk and talk.  You stop to talk.  And then you walk.
You don’t eat and talk.  You eat.  And then you talk.


Multitasking is a myth. 


You cannot be doing one thing and be fully present with another.


You can switch back and forth, but the more you do,
the less you sink into the fullness of each moment.
and the less you can return someone’s serve.


What are you bringing to your relationships, to your craft, to your daily activities?
Are you allowing your mind to leave them?  Wondering about something else?


The next time you are with a loved one,
or working on something,
say to yourself :
“what is in front of me is enough”.  
They will feel this.
Be fully engaged with that person
or with the task at hand,
ready for their serve
so you can return it.
How do you return the serve of people in your life?
I would love to know (tell me in the comments section below)…


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2 thoughts on “How ‘serve and return’ relationships helped build your brain architecture

  1. One thing I do in an attempt to be present: I only use my cell phone as an emergency phone. I go days without checking social media or my personal email email. It has become more obvious to me how others are so attached to their phones….and my text neck is getting better!

    • I love that – and I totally agree. Being so attached to our phones keeps us from being the moment. I also go days without checking those things – it can be hard for some people to get used to not getting immediate responses, but it’s a value that is personal and important for me. Good to know I’m not the only one!

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