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?

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