By Liz Dow

There is always a moment around Thanksgiving - that time when the hype of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sets in - when we begin to dread the responsibilities and chaos of the holidays. To counter that feeling, I have reframed my thinking, shifting focus from presents to presence, to reclaim the spirit and peace of the season. That has made all the difference.

When teaching leadership to professionals, we often stress the need to connect with the humanity of others - those whose wants and needs may differ from yours. So in our December class, we explore connecting through the gifts of listening, storytelling, and paying it forward. We focused on being present for others.

As families gather this season, shifting focus to the gift of presence can enrich the conversation and bring back the spirit of joy. It begins and ends with listening.

Instead of repeating the same old mundane travel stories or complaints about relatives who are not in the room, how about laser-focusing on one another in a loving and positive way? We use the following four strategies in class, but they can be easily adapted to the dinner table.

We do an exercise that involves taking turns shining the spotlight on each member of a team (not unlike each family member). The other members of the group tell that person what they admire about him, what they have learned from him, or how he has helped them. Each person receives undivided attention and specific, positive feedback. This loving energy moves from person to person around the table. It's a bit awkward at first, but quickly the conversation warms up as group members concentrate on each other's strengths. The givers and the receiver are enriched, and the shared joy warms the room.

Storytelling is another leadership skill that animates the room and strengthens the ties that bind us. Ask each person (this works for all ages) to share a story that has made her smile or touched her heart. This bonding experience opens our hearts and eyes to the goodness all around us. Everyone has a tale to contribute.

The material gift that we share in class is a $20 bill for each participant. They are instructed to "pay it forward" by looking for an opportunity to help someone without expecting anything in return. This requires them to pay attention to the wants and needs of strangers around them, stepping up to help others. I bring this exercise home by giving my children $20 as pay-it-forward stocking gifts so they can continue the practice. They have helped street musicians, letter carriers, and mothers in the grocery line through their unexpected generosity and presence.

Once the holidays pass, we approach the new year with recollections of the past and hopes for the future, asking the leadership students to focus on their legacy. Beyond the coming year, how do they want to be remembered by their family, colleagues, friends, and community? In the end, what will they have done that mattered? What have they contributed to make this world a better place? How did they add to the goodness that this world needs so desperately?

By listening inwardly to discern what calls to them, they gain insight into what to start doing right now.

This can feel like the best of seasons - filled with love, joy, and possibilities - or the worst - overflowing with the frustration of buying presents, being bombarded with advertisements for things we do not need or cannot afford, and reading news of tragedy and grief. Instead, what we truly need and can afford is to demonstrate leadership in conversations with family and friends and take action to increase our presence among those around us. Exchange presents for presence to experience and spread the joy that we all hope for at this time of year.