The #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Good Listener

Recently, the biggest blunder in the 90-year history of the Oscars took place when the wrong envelope for Best Picture was given to presenter Warren Beatty, resulting in an unforgettably embarrassing moment for the entire Academy of Motion Pictures dubbed “Envelopegate.”

How could such a simple task result in such a monumental oversight? After all, this wasn’t the county fair beauty pageant; it was the Academy Awards!

According to reports, Brian Cullinan of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm responsible for administering the winning Oscar entries, was posting on Twitter throughout the show while simultaneously supervising the distribution of envelopes, tweeting repeatedly just moments before he mistakenly handed Beatty the back up Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But as author and leadership consultant Bill Zipp notes, “Let’s not be so quick to judge this distracted accountant. We multitask many times a day and commit similar errors repeatedly. Just not in front of 37 million viewers.”

I’ve been sharing in recent posts about the critical role that listening plays in presenting the best version of ourselves. Now, perhaps more than any other time in history, the obstacles that stand in our way to fully engaging with each other are mounting, thanks to the growing number of distractions.

For me, the problem isn’t so much the distractions themselves but our tendency to respond to them by embracing what psychologists call “the myth of multitasking.”

According to neurological research, our brain cannot complete multiple tasks simultaneously; instead, it switches back and forth from each task, costing valuable time, productivity, and energy in the process. As mindfulness expert Nancy Napier puts it, “Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text to talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.”

In other words, stop deluding yourself into believing you can reply to that email while listening to your mom on the phone, study your Bible while watching Sports Center, or glance at that text while you’re driving home from work. You can’t do it–at least not mindfully, and it only robs you of your time, productivity, and often much more. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, distracted driving was identified as a factor in at least 10 percent of all fatalities and 18 percent of all crashes overall.

If you still think you’re one of those outliers who can multitask, Nancy suggests a simple test:

Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
Now, time yourself as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
On the first line, write: “I am a great multitasker.”
On the second line, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask.
Draw two more horizontal lines.
This time, again while timing yourself, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence on the lower line, following the sequences while changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

Chances are it took you at least twice as long to complete round #2 vs. the first round because you had to pause and think before getting the right letter and number sequence. This is exactly what happens when you try to multitask: Your brain actually has to take the time to switch between tasks while we mistakenly think we’re giving equal attention to both simultaneously.

If you want to truly develop yourself as a genuine, empathic listener with the discipline and humility to give others the gift of your undivided attention and presence, make the decision today that you won’t fall for the myth of multitasking. Not only will it help you become the best version of you, it could save your life!

How did you on the multitasking test? What does it reveal about your ability to focus on more than one thing at a time? Finally, how would you assess yourself in your ability to deal with distractions? Are you getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?

Comments { 0 }

Be a Hospitalian To Present the Best Version of YOU

In his popular TED Talk, “Be a Hospitalian,” Bobby Stuckey, owner of the renowned Frasca restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, shares a humorous holiday story of trying to please one of his relatives while hosting Thanksgiving dinner:

 

Bobby’s talk highlights the critical difference between service (“What you do for someone”) and hospitality (“Changing how they feel”). His point: From serving customers in a 5-Star restaurant to hosting your neighbors for a backyard barbecue — while excellent service is important, authentic hospitality is the real difference-maker.

As many of us prepare to spend the Easter holidays with family, Bobby’s message serves as a great reminder. There’s bound to be someone you’ll encounter who rubs you the wrong way…  be it that crazy uncle, know-it-all brother-in-law, or your sister’s boyfriend who drives you nuts. Being a “hospitalian” means presenting the best version of yourself, or, as Bobby says, “looking out instead of looking in.” It’s thinking of yourself less and putting others first, even those who irritate us.

So during this Easter holiday, take a cue from Bobby: Before the craziness begins, put aside your need for affirmation and gratitude and commit to becoming a “hospitalian.”

And if, at any point over the holidays, you’re tempted to slip back into the lesser version of yourself, get out your Bible, take a deep breath and let the true message of Easter inspire you:

Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48)

What was your experience celebrating Easter with family growing up? Was there tension or peace? How has that affected your approach to the celebrating holidays and family functions? How can Bobby Stuckey’s message of hospitality help you enjoy the coming days?

This post has been adapted from my previous post for the Christmas holiday.

Comments { 0 }

Four Keys to Becoming a Better Listener

In a recent post, I shared a statement from a friend that has become a personal affirmation:

I will be where I am….wherever I am.

For me, presence starts with what Emotional Intelligence expert Dr. Travis Bradberry calls “the art of listening.” Isn’t it interesting that he refers to listening, something that seems as basic to human functioning as breathing or swallowing, as an art? Dr. Bradberry’s description underscores the fact that listening goes way beyond merely hearing. Indeed as he puts it in his best selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0:

Listening isn’t just about hearing words; it’s also about listening to the tone, speed, and volume of the voice. What is being said? Anything not being said? What hidden messages exist below the surface?

So… why is it so hard to listen?

As I shared in an earlier post on conversation skills, the average person can speak at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation.

“Just try to be a better listener.”

I can think of so many times, after reading an article or listening to a podcast on the importance of listening, when I’ve resolved to “just try harder,” only to find that I forgot the names of the couple I was introduced to at church on Sunday after zoning out during the sermon as I thought about my upcoming busy week.

The fact is, simply trying harder rarely works; listening is a skill and, like any other skill, it requires discipline, intentionality and resolve to improve. As public radio host and TED Talk speaker Celeste Headlee notes:

It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone. But if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation — you’re just two people shouting out barely-related sentences in the same place.

In my quest to become a better listener (I do feel like I am slowly making progress!), I’ve discovered a few key behaviors that have a disproportionate influence on my success . Here are four:

1) Maintain eye contact.
When I started my first sales job out of college, selling copiers in Grand Rapids, my manager used to remind me, “You’ll never sell anything to anyone if they won’t first sit down at your desk and look you in the eye.” He was right; it was an insight that never failed to prove itself, whether I was selling copiers, cars, or concepts. Indeed, the desire for genuine communication demands eye contact. It signals to the other person that they have your full attention.

I recall shopping for furniture with my wife shortly after we got married. At the first store we shopped, I distinctly remember the salesperson rarely looking at my wife, even though she was the main decision maker. I also recall that we didn’t buy anything there.

Also, watch your posture–make sure it is open and inviting, and demonstrate your attention by smiling and nodding occasionally. This is especially important if you’re in a conversation with someone you know well and are comfortable with, like your spouse or sibling, where you may be tempted to grab your phone or laptop.

2) Give others the space to speak.
As Stephen Covey points out in his iconic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” Often, especially in a heated conversation (think politics or sports), there’s often an irresistible temptation to either finish someone’s sentence or respond before they’re done speaking. What’s more, it’s modeled every evening on Fox News, CNN and countless other news and talk shows that thrive on conflict and confrontation. The best way to avoid this obnoxious behavior is to train yourself to wait until someone is completely finished speaking, even if there’s a few seconds of space before you reply.

3) Give the speaker frequent feedback.
One of the best tools I learned in an excellent training session at Northwestern Michigan College is the skill of paraphrasing, or reflecting back on what the customer tells you. I recall sharing the highlights of a study in France that showed that restaurant servers who repeated their customer’s food orders to their satisfaction received up to 25% higher tips than those who simply recorded the order.

Also, demonstrate to the speaker that you understand and are interested by their responses. Examples like “You must have been angry,” “What a difficult ordeal for you,” and “How were you feeling?” show genuine interest and concern.

4) Embrace mindfulness.
As a Christian, I distanced myself from even considering the practice of mindfulness, writing it off as a product of new age, eastern mysticism. Then a Christian friend of mine–a trained therapist–shared with me the positive influence of simple mindfulness behaviors in everything from relieving depression to improving sleep in his patients. As I researched it further, I discovered that mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention and living in the present moment. In fact, according to Psychology Today, mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present.”

In our increasingly distracted culture, most people’s minds wander: When they’re at work, they daydream about being on vacation; when on vacation, they worry about work piling up on their desks. They dwell on invasive memories of the past and obsess about what may or may not happen in the future. Being mindful means concentrating your attention and awareness on the present moment–in this case, on the speaker with whom you’re conversing. Research is continually revealing the tremendous benefits of mindfulness–in relieving stress, improving relationships, promoting better health, even accelerating athletic performance. (Note: There is a branch of mindfulness that centers around meditative techniques intended to empty your mind and connect to an alternate state of consciousness–that’s not what I am advocating).

BONUS: Learn to develop genuine curiosity.

Have you encountered someone who is genuinely curious? I recall hosting a neighborhood association meeting in our home when one of our guests noticed a family portrait hanging above our fireplace. Instead of merely acknowledging the photo, she inquisitively asked my wife and me about each of our children. You could tell through the tone of her voice and her persistent follow up questions that she wasn’t merely asking to be polite; she was genuinely interested in our family. She was genuinely curious–she was present. Curious people notice things others ignore, taking the focus off themselves and placing it squarely on others, adding genuine richness and life to any encounter or gathering.

Which one of these listening behaviors resonates the most with you? Which one challenges you the most? How do you feel about mindfulness? On a scale of 1 -10, how would you rate yourself in genuine curiosity? Why?

Comments { 3 }

Learn To Be Lucky

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! This time of year, luck is often top of mind — have you ever wondered why some people seem to live charmed lives, full of lucky breaks, while others fall victim to one misfortune after another?

In his landmark book, The Luck Factor, Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Herefordshire in England, answers this question, coming to the promising conclusion that luck — good or bad — is purely a state of mind.

Wiseman exhaustively researched the beliefs, habits, and experiences of more than 400 people over several years. His findings: Luck is not the result of random chance, nor are people born lucky or unlucky. Instead, luckiness can be predicted by examining people’s patterns of thinking and behavior. In other words, luck can actually be learned. Here are four core principles underlying lives of good fortune.

1) Lucky people create chance events. They are adept at noticing and finding ways to act upon chance opportunities. They tend to be relaxed and open, often discovering possibilities well beyond what they were looking for. Unlucky people, by contrast, are more tense and myopic and avoid taking risks, preferring to stay in their comfort zones.
2) Lucky people produce success by relying on their intuition. They tend to go with their gut instincts while unlucky people tend to rely more on logic.
3) Lucky people expect good things to happen. They create self-fulfilling prophecies through positive expectations, knowing what they want and reinforcing it through positive, affirming self-talk. (They tell themselves how lucky they are.) By contrast, unlucky people tend to dwell on what they don’t want… which often turns out to be exactly what they get.
4) Lucky people display a high level of resilience that transforms bad luck into good luck. Wiseman’s lucky subjects were extremely persistent, while their unlucky counterparts gave up at the first signs of struggle.

One of the most striking contrasts from Wiseman’s research was the difference in how his lucky subjects re-framed unfortunate experiences compared to unlucky folks. Wiseman explains:

“I decided to present lucky and unlucky people with some unlucky scenarios and see how they reacted. I asked lucky and unlucky people to imagine that, while waiting in line in a bank, an armed robber enters, fires a shot, and the bullet hits them in the arm. Would this event be lucky or unlucky? Unlucky people tended to say that this would be enormously unlucky and it would be just their bad luck to be in the bank during the robbery. In contrast, lucky people viewed the scenario as being far luckier, and often spontaneously commented on how the situation could have been far worse. ‘It’s lucky because you could have been shot in the head — also, you could sell your story to the newspapers and make some money.”

As Wiseman’s research reveals, the differences between lucky and unlucky people have nothing to do with blind chance. Perhaps most encouraging, luckiness can be learned, a claim the author backs up by creating a “luck school” in which he coaches previously unlucky people to adopt measurable, luck-building behaviors. The results, according to Wiseman’s research, are dramatic. “Eighty percent of the ‘luck school’ students are now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps best of all, luckier.”

So, if you want good fortune, start telling yourself how lucky you are, act upon chance events, trust your instincts, and persistently go after your goals!

What is your reaction to Wiseman’s findings? What are your beliefs about luck? Do you consider yourself to be superstitious? (According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 25% of Americans claimed to be somewhat to very superstitious.) Did anything in Wiseman’s research surprise you? If you lived out these four “luck-building” principles consistently, what would it mean to your personal brand… and to your life?

Comments { 3 }