☺️ How to Be a More Effective Listener

The gift of being a great listener is a selfless act. It requires empathy, emotional intelligence, fortitude and focus.  It is so much easier to zone out on your eighth zoom meeting of the day, continue to watch television when your mother calls or scroll through your phone on that webcast and wait for something to call your attention back. If I learned anything from working remotely over the last two years it’s that distraction control is job one for me.  Whether it be my neurotic dog Baci staring at me with some unknown demand or a ding on my laptop or weather alert on my iWatch, it can take all my energy to stay focused on my client on my laptop screen. 

Here are some ways to be a more effective listener:

Shut it down. When I get a call from my mom, or FaceTime call from my daughter, I shut everything down.  I shut down the television, turn down the stove and close my laptop.  If I am unable to because I’m in the middle of a client call, I shut down the notification.  There was a time where I would have tried to multi-task and maybe mute the television and try to focus on the phone call or scroll through my phone while on a zoom call.  It’s now become second nature to shut any potential distraction down.  This auto pilot move improves my ability to focus on the person or group in front of me.

Uni-tasking. Multi-tasking is a fallacy.  Unless it’s a mundane task like chewing gum and walking at the same time, multi-tasking is just skimming through tasks and is an enormous energy drain.  As Chamorro-Premuzic wrote for Fast Company, “Distractions, stress, worries, and multitasking all interfere with high quality listening, as we all know from everyday experience. Contrary to popular belief, tasks that require active attention cannot be done simultaneously. Multitasking is a bit like intuition, sense of humor, or musical taste: just because we think we are good at it doesn’t mean we actually are.” I think of initial client coaching calls I have had. If my new client is calling me from their phone while making their breakfast or shopping at Lowe’s, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be a productive collaboration.  Try to uni-task to be able to focus.

Cultivate Connection. I recently watched Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart on HBO and have subsequently received the book of the same title.  One of the most impactful parts of that show is the last section when she models cultivating connection. Brene and Aiko Bethea do a role play where Brene is the manager and Aiko is the underling with a problem presentation. Brene plays the role of manager in several non-productive, harmful ways and then finally connects in the last role play. In the last role play, she was able build connection by empathizing with Aiko’s discomfort without taking over and telling what to do.  She was able to “be with” Aiko and asked for ways she support Aiko with the situation.  This was really powerful for me.  I can feel the urge to take over and fix a problem whether it’s my daughter’s wedding plans, my client’s strategic plan or friend’s home sale. Effective listening requires one to offer support but not taking over to solve.

Self-control. This is by far the hardest hurdle for me on coaching calls.  I can find myself interrupting my client when I should be trying to be present and let the client talk it through.  It’s an exercise in presence and mindfulness.  I might have a great idea, or applicable antidote to tell but that is interrupting the client doing their best thinking.  I actively have to focus on making the space for the client to work things through.  As Chamorro-Premuzic wrote, “This is why mindfulness is a consistent predictor of better listening. Waiting for the other person to finish, and even counting two or three seconds after they’ve gone quiet, is a simple exercise to keep your feelings and thoughts under control. Even if you feel you are right, or you don’t like what you are hearing, you will be much more likely to win the argument if you wait until the other person finishes unless you don’t want them to listen to you.” Practice self-control and be present.

Mirror, reframe or clarify.  This is the last and most impactful step of effective listening.  It’s basically letting the other person know that you heard what they said.  You can mirror back what they said, “So you were mad because your boss didn’t listen to you.” Or you can reframe it, “So you were frustrated because you couldn’t get through to your boss.”  Or clarify, “Does this happen often with your boss?  With others?” In any of these examples, you are letting the other person know that you heard them.  If you are brainstorming, you could summarize the other person’s point, “So you think it’s important we finish by September 15th and we need at least two engineers on this project.” Let the other person or group know that you heard them.

I am a much better coach and facilitator when I use these techniques. It’s not easy and I’m just a work in progress but it’s amazing what the results are if I am able to be an effective listener.  I am able to create more connection and a space for discovery and insight.  What techniques do you use to be an effective listener?

Time to Cowboy Up and Turn off That Phone. Lessons in Uni-tasking.

It sucks you in. It captures your attention. Those sly notifications. It’s like a hit of some illicit drug. You just have to pick up that phone and see if someone is reaching out to you with that million dollar deal. That windfall. An old flame trying to rekindle. The rich uncle who left you his Tesla. The reality is that it is nothing but deception. Most of those emails and other sundry notifications are just temptation into nothing but junk. Spam. Some old college friend you half remember liked the photo of a sunrise. And you stopped what you were doing and came to a screeching halt? Do you want to know what that is costing you? The illusion of multitasking is wearing you out.

The answer lies in having the courage (yes courage) to shut that damn phone off. Yes. I said off. To do your best work you need to uni-task. One thing at a time. But I hear you balking. “I can’t give up my phone. There might be an emergency.” Truth is there is no emergency. The phone is just making you believe it is so.

disconnectHere is are the reasons you need to cowboy up and turn off that phone:

1. The cost of context switching is huge.

Check out Gerry Weinberg’s chart of productivity loss. Basically if you focus on one project like writing this blog post; there is 100% productivity and no time lost switching contexts. But if you try to write a blog post while emailing your boss and writing a new marketing project; in other words, working on 3 projects at once you will have 20% productivity and 40% lost to context switching. That’s a huge loss! You’ve been there. You are right in the middle of the flow of creativity and the phone rings. It’s nothing important but it will take you time to get back to where you were. Time lost in trying to get back THERE is huge. And often that ‘next thought’ is lost forever.

2. Multitasking gets you there later.

Roger Brown wrote this article for InfoQ. Brown writes, “We know that simple interruptions like a phone call can cost as much as 15 minutes of recovery time. The more complex the task, the more time it takes to make the shift.” It’s like constantly hitting the pause button. Actually it’s more like hitting the reverse button. One step forward multitasking is taking you two giant steps back. You’ll never win “Mother May I” with that sort of tactic.

3. It’s harmful for you brain.

Brown writes, “There is evidence that multitasking actually degrades short term memory, not just for the topics being multitasked but possibly by impacting areas of the brain.” Your prefrontal cortex requires a lot of energy. It’s where you do your best work. If you are constantly stressing it out by dragging your thoughts into fight or flight (which is what distractions are doing to you) you will not be able to do your best work. Mistakes will happen. And the constant stress is bad for your brain.

4. You are just scattered.

As Jim Benson wrote for Personal Kanban, “The study found that self-identified multi-taskers ended up people who were merely justifying a scattered lifestyle. Perhaps they felt productive because during a day they touched so many different tasks – but when actually tested against people who focused on one thing at a time, the multi-taskers lost and lost big.” I think of Thanksgiving Day. I am multitasking trying to get a meal together that I make once a year. I am not used to making a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, veggies and pumpkin pies all in one fell swoop. It’s a one off event. And if you looked at my kitchen, it would most likely be described as a disaster (i.e. very scattered). And that’s not how my kitchen usually looks.

5. It’s really expensive.

As Steve Lohr wrote for the New York Times, “The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.” The billion with a B. Companies are spending money on all the unproductive, recovery time to get back on task.

So what do you do? Create time blocks to do your best work and turn off your phone. Complete one project. Complete one phase or one chunk. Then move on. Turn on music without lyrics (i.e. classical). Get present and focus. Think of all the good you will be doing for yourself and others. And think of the free time you’ll have after to just enjoy life.

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on September 11, 2015.