Sunday, December 13th, 2009
Over the last few years we’ve heard about new conditions such as “BlackBerry Thumb.” Human evolution did not prepare us for the way we overuse our hands to send text messages and write emails on our smart phones, and this leads to pain and ailments that we haven’t had to endure in the millions of years since we developed opposable thumbs.
Makes sense. I got my first cell phone in 1987, and in the last 22 years my hands have been subjected to gymnastics they hadn’t seen in the previous 22. It often hurts.
Something even more sinister is happening to our brains. Human beings evolved to deal with the social issues of small clans and the vocational challenges of the hunter gatherer. As time went on and civilization progressed, we began to encounter much more information, and by Elizabethan times the data an educated person was exposed during his or her entire lifetime had expanded to equal that of a current weekday edition of the New York Times. Now, of course, the information we are inundated in our contemporary lifetimes has multiplied well beyond that.
BlackBerry Thumb is nothing compared to the mental tendonitis we’re inflicting on our brains. We live in a constant state of information overload and time poverty. We feel the only option is multitasking and multithinking, but our frontal cortices, with their limited capacity of dealing with about 40 bytes of information each second, aren’t very good at multi-anything. The result is that we’re often distracted while interacting with people, as our minds hyperlink from topic to somewhat-related topic, and every few seconds remember that we’re supposed to be in a conversation.
The people with whom we’re speaking recognize that we’re not engaged, leading to another ill of modern life: People repeating themselves over and over, because they don’t have confidence they’re being heard. This leads to a pernicious feedback loop, as the listener listens even less as the speaker repeats himself, leading the speaker to repeat even more and the listener to listen even less. It’s frightening to think how often things we say to people in person get as much true attention as a random tweet.
Hyperlinking has become a model not only for distracted thinking but for disjointed group conversations. I spend a lot of time facilitating group discussions, and I often see people try to “click” on a phrase in someone else’s sentence in order to jump to a related topic. I’ve learned reel them back by clicking on an imaginary “back” button.
Our modern world is busier, more fragmented, more crowded, more disjointed and noisier than anything we were made for. We’re not going to change the world we live in – in fact, we love it and we wouldn’t want to change it. But let’s recognize that we’re not prepared for it, and be aware of the challenges it imposes on us. Let’s try to filter the noise and use our amazing, highly-evolved mammalian brain in a way that leverages its strengths, not in a way that taxes its powers.
Otherwise we’ll end up with a severe case of mental tendonitis.
Sunday, August 30th, 2009
Today’s (Sunday, 8/30/09) New York Times ran an article titled “The Mediocre Multitasker.“ Researches at Stanford’s “Communications Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab” set out to find what makes great multitaskers be able to accomplish so much. To their surprise, they found out that multitaskers are actually very ineffective, and get much less done than those who don’t multitask. “Multitaskers are were just lousy at everything,” said Clifford Nass, one of the study’s investigators. He added, “High multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.”
As I’ve written many times, one of the key reasons people fail to create relationship-building encounters during business interactions is that they don’t engage fully in their interactions. They look at emails while they talk on the phone. They read text messages the moment the messages arrive, even though they may be in the middle of a conversation with a colleague. While another person is talking, a part of their brain is dedicated to reviewing this week’s soccer carpool schedule.
This research provides tangible support for what I’ve been saying: We don’t actually multitask, we “time slice,” quickly switching between mental tasks. If you insist on typing an email while you talk on the phone, you are compromising your relationship with the person on the phone. Why? Because part of the time you are not actually in the conversation. The other person is there all by himself.
Focusing on one task at a time is really difficult. But it’s necessary, especially if you want to build relationships during your business interactions. Wisconsin Public Radio host (and master interviewer), Ben Merens, has published a wonderful CD called “Unitasking: 25 Tips for Better Listening,” which offers advice on how to focus on the conversation you are in, and not be distracted by the noise of daily life. (There are also tips in Chapter 2 of my book, We, and in my free ebook, Encounters.)
I naturally want to multitask, and avoiding it is very difficult for me; I’m a poster child for the Struggle Against Multitasking. But I have learned the price of multitasking, and the benefits of unitasking. I am always more effective when I don’t multitask, especially when I am in interactions with other people.
Go ahead! Shatter the myth! Believe this: You can’t multitask. You can only do one substantive thing at a time. Now, start practicing.
Thursday, June 18th, 2009
Many hours in airplanes, the beautiful Indian Ocean, and a chance to practice “now.” One of the things I really like about traveling to far-away time zones is the chance to practice some life and business fundamentals that contribute directly to business success.
Here’s a short video I shot yesterday:
I’m carrying on with my theme of the last week, focusing on really specific things we can all do to improve our business relationships and relationship-building encounters, moment by moment. Some of the biggest obstacles to being effective with business relationships are the zillions of distractions that keep up from being present as we engage with others. Practice “now.”
Sunday, June 14th, 2009
Every day we’re on the phone with people, and we notice they are going through emails, or surfing the web, while talking with us. Everyone I speak with has this experience, regularly.
How do we notice this? Because we notice that the person we are speaking with is not engaged with us. We notice that the flow of conversation is broken. We notice that the other person has no idea what we just said. We hear the clicks of their keyboard.
I wrote a post back in December called, Are you here? in which I encouraged readers to call people out if they are not paying attention during a conversation, particularly a phone conversation.
My brother Phil and I were talking tonight, and we were trying to decide on a clever way to do this. We were looking for a short, powerful phrase to say to people that would have the meaning of, “Hey, are you with me? I’d love it if you would stop looking at your computer screen and focus on our conversation!”
We first thought about yelling out, “Slimy!” because for years we’ve pronounced the word “emails” backwards as “slimy,” as in, “I’m going to go fire up my laptop and check my slimy.” But, I know, that’s way to obscure. (Oh, did I forget to mention, Phil and I have a very strange habit of speaking backwards with each other? We’ve been doing it since we were little kids. Can you see how “emails” would be “slimy?”)
Do you have any great suggestions for this call out?
It might be as simple as, “Are you with me?”
Or, “Is now a good time to talk?”
Or, “Would you like me to wait?”
Or, “If you’re transcribing this conversation, be sure to spell my name correctly. It’s S-T-E ..”
Or, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” just to test if they are listening.
I’d love your suggestions. (And, of course, if you ever notice me doing “slimy” while we’re on the phone, you have my permission to call me out, with whatever phrase you want.)
Friday, March 20th, 2009
A friend was leafing through the pages of my book We yesterday, stopping on page 90 to comment on this sentence:
“No matter what the interaction is, it is always possible to make it less formulaic and scripted.”
I don’t care how many times the hotel clerk has checked people in, I don’t care how many times the doctor has described a condition, I don’t care how many times you have been a certain type of situation, it is possible – and necessary – to make the person you interact with feel that this is a unique, fresh, unscripted encounter that you have prepared just for her, as if it were the first time you have done it.
Be aware today of freshness. Notice if people are replaying used scripts as they talk to you, notice if you are doing the same. Notice how easy it is for you to discern if someone is formulaic and scripted, think of how easy it must be for others to know when you are.
Be fresh! (For this kind of freshness, you won’t get slapped.)
Saturday, December 6th, 2008
“Cause all you see, is where else you could be …”
- Death Cab for Cutie, Your Heart is an Empty Room, from the album Plans
Isn’t it frustrating when you fully commit yourself to an interaction with someone, but you can tell that they aren’t fully engaged with you?
This happens all of the time – people’s eyes wander while you talk with them, their answers to your questions betray that they have lost the thread of the conversation, you hear them clicking away on their computer keyboard while you talk on the phone. Ugh.
Don’t feel like you’ve done something; it’s usually not your fault. As Eckardt Tolle said, the present is a place most of us visit only infrequently. Non-engagement is a symptom of our over-scheduled, over-saturated lives and the myth that we are able to multi-task.
But, it’s a big problem: The first requirement for a relationship-building encounter is that you and the other person are both fully-engaged in the moment. Without full engagement, you will have a relationship-diluting transaction.
Here’s my challenge to you for the upcoming week: Call people out when you see they are not engaged.
Ok. It’s a bit uncomfortable. But think of it this way: You are devoting valuable moments of your life to an interaction with someone, and they are not equally willing to commit to the encounter. You are there, and they aren’t. What a waste of your time. What a waste of a slice of life.
Go ahead. Say it. “Are you here with me?” “Do you want me to wait until you finish whatever it is you are typing, and then we can continue talking?” “Is something else distracting you? Do you want me to wait a minute while you take care of it?”
You are not the one who should feel uncomfortable. My associate, Caroline Ceisel, and I work together most every day. Caroline has no trouble telling me if she thinks my mind is elsewhere when we are talking about something. The result? I am especially conscious of giving her my full attention when we talk.
Do it. You will have an opportunity today. You will be speaking with someone and you will discern that their mind is wandering. Call the other person out. And then, watch what happens. They will not only engage more fully in the present moment, they will also engage more fully with you in the future.
Friday, September 12th, 2008
I have facilitated workshops for the past five days in a row, from Sunday through yesterday, Thursday. Each forum enabled me to engage the audience in the exchange of ideas.
This is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. I show up for the workshop, well-prepared, and with a clear idea of the content I want to cover. But, at the start, I do not know what will happen in the workshop, because I have not yet heard the participants’ contributions.
When I meet people as they come in the room, they are always friendly, but all I can learn about them as we greet each other is what is written on their name tag and in the few words we can exchange. But, with each person, I am am confident that there is a depth that I have not yet uncovered.
Once a workshop starts, I begin to solicit contributions from the attendees. As I provoke them and prod them, ideas begin to surface. One person’s thoughts encourage another to speak, sometimes to agree, sometimes to amend, often to debate.
As I stand in front of a group, the vision I have is that there is a well of intelligence seated before me, and my job is tap into that well, using my ideas and concepts to bring forth new, stimulating thoughts. Every group I work with is different, because each well of intelligence has its own strengths and personality.
Presentations are not about presenting. They are about being present enough to engage a group of people, in a way that creates new ideas that none of us could have created without the collaboration of each other.