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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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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?

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The One Thing You Must Do To Present the Best Version of You

Last spring, I was having a “30,000 foot” conversation with a friend, sharing some of our mutual leadership and relational challenges. During the exchange, he shared a statement that resonated so strongly with me that it became a personal theme, a constant reminder that underscores an ongoing obstacle in my life:

I will be where I am… wherever I am.

This simple sentence is a definition of presence, which is the ability to give people the gift of your attention, the willingness to fully engage in every encounter–at every meal, every meeting, every conversation, every day.

The older I get, the more I realize how difficult this can be for me. I suffer from a distracted and overactive mind.

In an effort to improve, as I’ve unpacked this whole issue of presence, I’ve come to realize that being present starts with listening. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but in an increasingly distracted culture, listening is one of the most difficult skills to consistently practice. And yet, if you are serious about building a strong personal brand by consistently presenting the best version of yourself, learning to listen–really listen–is non-negotiable.

Presence: Listening and hearing are not the same.

Listening and hearing are not the same.

How many times have you been introduced to someone, and, within minutes, or even seconds, you forget their name? (Don’t tell me I’m the only one guilty of this!) How can that happen? After all, you clearly heard the name, right? The problem was that you may have heard it, but you weren’t listening. Chances are, your focus was on yourself and the impression you were making. Or your mind was absorbed in the meeting you were preparing for, the weekend plans you were looking forward to, or something else that occupied your thoughts at that moment.

Instances like this cause people to say things like, “I’m bad with names” when the truth is, you’re simply unskilled at the discipline of listening.

Whether this example resonates with you or not, the key is to understand that listening involves more than just hearing words directed at us. Listening is an active process by which we receive, assess, and respond to what we hear–and the benefits are huge. As Mary Schaller explains in The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations:

People are often ready to listen to us only after they feel understood and heard. In a society full of folks who would rather talk than listen, people are starved for someone who is willing to move into their lives as a listener and learner. Being known as a good listener will cause you to stand out in our self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of world.

The stakes are high.

In an earlier post, I shared that today more than ever we tend to live in echo chambers where everything we pay attention to only reinforces what we already believe. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans today are more polarized than perhaps any other period in our history. As a result, we are increasingly less likely to listen and learn from one another–at great potential cost to the health of our society.

In my upcoming posts, I will explore some proven skills to improve our listening, develop our sense of presence, and expand our capacity to present the best version of ourselves.

Are you listening?

How would you evaluate yourself as a listener? Are you, for example, comfortable with remembering names and noticing things? Does your mind tend to wander during conversations? Do you find it hard to concentrate in the midst of smartphones, social networking and other distractions? What would it mean to you and to the quality of your life if you could expand your sense of presence?

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5 Keys to Becoming a Good Conversationalist

“Conversational competence may be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”
– Paul Barnwell, teacher and writer

A fellow blogger and good friend of mine once described good communication as “the act of furthering understanding between two people.” I think that’s true, which is why I find the increasing polarization of our society deeply concerning.

Today, people seem to live in echo chambers where they continually reinforce their own belief systems. The result: We are less likely to compromise and more likely to make decisions based on what we already believe–losing our ability to listen to and learn from one another.

If you’re serious about personal development, you must be committed to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas with others. In other words, you must learn the skill of good conversation.

CREDIT: Getty Images

Here are five “must have” skills shared by good conversationalists the world over:

1) Be present. According to public radio host Celeste Headlee, the average person can talk 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 (this is a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation. Remember, multi-tasking is a myth–you can only focus your attention on one thing at a time. Engaging in true conversation means giving the other person your undivided attention. It requires the same concentration and self discipline as training for a marathon or studying for an exam.

2) Listen more than you speak. It’s been said that the most interesting person in the world is the one who makes you think you’re the most interesting person in the world. That may sound like cheesy networking advice, but it’s true. The more you talk, the more you deprive yourself of learning and growing. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand…then be understood.” Becoming known as a good listener is one of the best ways to build your personal brand because you build rapport and trust with others very quickly.

3) Stop stealing stories. Resist the urge to interject your own stories and experiences. If someone shares their grief over losing a close friend, for example, don’t tell them about the time you lost a family member. You don’t know exactly how they feel, so don’t try to equate your experiences with theirs.

4) Ask questions that provoke a thoughtful response. Good questions are open-ended, asking who, what, why, and how verses questions that ask for a yes or no response. Listen to a skilled interviewer like Charlie Rose or Oprah Winfrey. Their questions help those they’re interviewing feel safe and understood, they are clear and relevant, and they continuously move the conversation forward.

5) Practice genuine curiosity. As Mary Schaller writes in The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations, “Curiosity is the bridge that moves you from listening to asking questions and fully engaging.” The word curiosity comes from the Latin word cura, which means “to care, to tend, and to heal.” Genuinely curious people possess a sincere and humble desire to know more about other people. They honestly believe that they can learn something from everyone.

Celeste Headley tells her audience that if you really want to share your opinions with no response or disagreement, then write a blog. But if you’re serious about engaging the world in the marketplace of ideas, commit to growing your capacity for good conversation.

Which of the five points about conversation challenges you the most? What is one habit you could develop to get better?

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