When it comes to dates, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves and the other person: to perform, to impress, to pick up on every subtlety of every joke, to be effortlessly charming.
For someone who genuinely wants a love connection, it’s understandable that the particular pre-date mix of anticipation, nerves, sincere hopefulness, and fear of being disappointed creates a cocktail of high stakes.
But these high stakes are in your head.
As a dating and relationship coach, I work with clients at all stages of the love journey from building out a social network, to sourcing first dates, to progressing relationships forward, to the whole host of challenges and opportunities for growth that co-creating partnership presents.
At any juncture, whether a first date or the fifth time you have the same argument after years of dating, there is one simple outlook that serves as an effective pressure valve to my clients and grounds them back in the present moment: curiosity.
The truth is that an initial date doesn’t need to be anything more than just an opportunity to spend time together and gauge if there’s enough mutual intrigue to want to see each other again.
You don’t need to share every single thing about yourself, or to learn every single thing about the other person. You don’t need an agenda or a preplanned notion of when you’ll kiss. You don’t need to forecast how long the relationship will last.
It’s really just about being present together and seeing how it feels.
The more you can be present in the current experience of your date, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy yourself, the more enjoyable you are to be around. And if you both enjoy yourselves, that is a “successful” date in my book.
There’s a lot of rhetoric around the effervescent quality of “presence,” but what is it exactly, and how do you experience more of it on a date?
Put simply, presence is being fully where you are and accepting what’s happening around you.
Here are five best practices to show up with more presence on a date.
Take time to prepare for the date
Carving out space and time for yourself to prepare sets the tone for a great date. Even if it’s only twenty minutes, pausing to prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically can make a world of difference for how you show up.
On a physical level, giving thought and effort to looking good will boost your confidence and communicate to both yourself and your date that this is a special event. And what we deem as special, we savor.
On an emotional level, having a pre-date ritual to boost your mojo, whether it’s listening to “Sharp Dressed Man” on repeat while dancing around the kitchen, doing one hundred jumping jacks, or sitting still for a few minutes, it shows when you show up to a date feeling good and grounded.
On a mental level, a transition period between your day and the date helps you leave any problems or distractions on your mind at home so that you can relax and have a sense of humor on your date.
When planning a date, avoid scheduling back-to-back commitments right beforehand and try building intentional prep time into the equation instead. When you take time to recharge your energy, you can give more to others.
Put your phone on airplane mode
Nothing kills connection like a cellphone. In fact, research shows that even just briefly getting your phone out decreases the quality of the connection between people.
A date is an invitation to spend quality time together. So if you want quality connection, put your phone on airplane mode and leave it in your pocket or bag.
Using your phone on a date, even to briefly look up John Wayne on Wikipedia because it’s pertinent to your conversation, takes you out of the moment and into the vortex of the outside world.
Whipping your phone out is not only distracting and detrimental to a budding connection, it’s also disrespectful to your date who will have to sit there unengaged as you click away on your device.
Challenge yourself to stay off your phone for the duration of the date. When your date goes to the bathroom, stay present and check in with yourself or just enjoy your sweet potato fries instead of texting your friend that it’s going great or checking the score on the game.
If you absolutely must get your phone out because there’s an emergency or your kid is sick or you need to look up directions to the next venue, acknowledge that you need a moment, and make it brief.
Fragmenting your presence on a date by being on your phone takes you out of the magic of the moment and makes you seem less invested and less available. When we see that someone is not invested in us, we invest less in them.
Disconnect from your phone, and connect with your date.
Leave exes and dates with other people out of the conversation
Although you may think that bringing up exes or other dates when on a date is just you being honest or sharing about yourself and your history, it actually only serves to make your date feel less special and kills the mood.
Bringing the phantoms of other love interests into the conversation takes the focus off of being there together. Whether you’re talking about a previous relationship, inquiring into how many dates your date goes on, or recalling a funny date story, the end result is the same: you’re dimming the romantic spark between you.
If you’re bringing up former flames on an initial date with someone, your date might assume that you’re hung up on someone else and not fully available to develop something new with them. Or they might feel friend-zoned. Or therapist-zoned, which is a term I just made up.
Bemoaning other dates you’ve been on will make your date feel scrutinized, and invite the question of whether you’ll be sharing stories from this date on other dates in the future.
For established couples on date night, I also advise leaving past partners out of the conversation in order to uphold the quality of this special time you’ve carved out to be together. There is a time to share your respective romantic histories, but dates are not that time. Process your love life with your friends, coach, or therapist, not with the people you’re pursuing or in a relationship with. There is no need for the ghost of girlfriends past to pull up a seat at the table.
Instead, focus the conversation on getting to know the person across from you, exploring ideas together, or sharing stories and non-date experiences. In order to feel excited about you, your date needs to feel like you might be excited about them too, not like you’re looking for a captive audience to help you process your most recent breakup.
Ask follow-up questions
We’re all well aware that a conversation is built on asking questions, responding to questions, and sharing information, ideas, and experiences. On a date, a conversation is not so much about covering a lot of surface area and gathering as much information as possible so much as it is about gaining an understanding of what makes the other person tick.
You’ll learn a hell of a lot more about a person and lead the conversation into much more compelling waters if you ask more follow-up questions to your date’s responses that get at the “why” behind what they’re sharing.
If someone has a Ph.D. in marine biology but works as a personal trainer, ask follow-up questions that get at the “why” behind their professional story. What compelled them to switch industries? What did they learn as a scientist that helps them with their current clients? Was it a challenging and scary transition to make?
Rapport is built on a dance of connecting on content and disposition. If you don’t relate to the content or the “what” someone is sharing, it’s likely you’ll be able to connect on some level with the disposition or the “why” of what compels them about that topic.
By asking follow-up questions that lead your date to share more “whats,” as well as more “whys,” you get at the texture of that person’s experience rather than just getting a cursory report on the chronology of their life. This is how you start to understand someone’s value system—what drives them, how they make decisions, what inspires them.
Stay present to your curiosity. Ask follow-up questions on follow-up questions and let the magic of the date unfold.
Hold the tension
There are many areas of life and social dynamics wherein we strive to diffuse any possible tension. In a professional meeting, we may look to find common ground before things get heated. At a family dinner, we may steer the conversation away from certain topics so as not to upset Aunt Peggy. In friendships, we may agree to disagree and leave it at that.
In most scenarios, we have learned to lean away from tension. To be fully present to the experience of dating, however, it is to your benefit to lean into tension, discomfort, and a few giggle-worthy moments of awkwardness.
We call it sexual tension for a reason.
Whether through surprisingly honest directness, a good-natured disagreement, humor, unexpected expressions of interest, or any variety of bold move, flirting is a game of playfully creating and holding tension.
It is this tension and excitement that distinguishes a date from two just two people eating dinner together. Lean into it. Enjoy it. Create it. Allow it to be uncomfortable.
Presence on a date is the state of being intrigued. And we decide to see someone again and again and again when we continue to feel intrigued.
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