I was sweating through my final abdominal crunch when I noticed the cute 20-something personal trainer trying to whip a middle-aged woman into shape. He was doing a good job so I thought. When I looked a little longer, I noticed he wasn’t really paying attention to her. Head down and fingers flying across his iPhone, he was texting, chuckling and occasionally glancing at the woman now struggling to loosen a lever on a machine.
I knew it was none of my business, but I couldn’t control myself when I walked up to 20-something and said, “Excuse me, if I was paying you to pay attention to me, I would have fired you 10 minutes ago.” Looking up from the phone somewhat bewildered, he stared at me and then said if you had been here earlier and maybe saw our workout, you would have seen that I was watching her, but I have this cool app on my phone…
Do you give colleagues and customers your full attention when they speak to you or are you frequently distracted and time challenged forcing you to multitask with only half an ear in the conversation? Modern technology is supposed to make communicating more efficient. However, with overloaded in-boxes, text messages begging for instant response and an overextended global workplace forcing us to schedule calls and virtual meetings at all hours of the day, our concentration and ability to focus on even the simplest task is threatened.
In an article that appeared at Forbes.com, Daniel Anderson, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor, said, “If your attention is being broken constantly, you actually have to mentally reconstruct what you’ve been thinking.” He went on to say those lost seconds may translate into lost insights.
Perhaps we need to change the way we listen. That means taking verbal and nonverbal cues from people we sometimes can’t see or hear. For example, when sending an email, how do we know the person interpreted our message correctly? We haven’t seen their eyes or heard the inflection in their voice that tells us whether they are optimistic, doubtful or interested. If others are cc’ed on the email, one sentence might mean different things to different people.
Several weeks ago, I observed a sales call with a representative helping his company roll out a new product. He was personal, warm, enthusiastic and did a great job delivering important messages. But he treated the call more like a presentation than a conversation. Instead of encouraging the prospect to talk about her needs so he could help her understand how his product could solve her problems, he barreled through information like a truck on a freeway intent on its destination. When she interrupted to ask a question or state a concern, he failed to pause, look directly at her and guide the conversation appropriately. It reminded me of trying to return a tennis ball the same way every time regardless of how it was received. Focused conversations are like tennis. You wait, watch and look for an opening to score a point.
Years ago, I was sitting in a Lenox, Mass., coffee shop when this total stranger breezed in and plopped down at my table.
“Hi,” she said. “OK if I join you?”
I looked around at all the empty seats but thought better of pointing that out to her.
“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
I don’t remember her name and I don’t remember much about her, but I do remember our conversation because it’s stayed with me all these years.
“You have kids?” she asked.
“Yes, two boys,” I replied.
“I have one girl and I’ll tell you something every parent needs to know. If your son walks into a room to talk to you and you’re busy, you better put down what you’re doing and listen when he wants to talk. Make sure he knows that he’s more important than anything you have going on.”
I’m not sure why that woman chose my table on that particular morning, but perhaps it is a message we all need to hear. If you want others to respect you, then be present when people speak to you. That means giving them your complete attention. No ifs ands or buts.