Some things we miss are obvious. A player for Indiana University last month missed an uncontested layup in a basketball game against Butler. The 17,000 fans at the game saw it, as did thousands watching on the Big Ten Network. Any time high-profile people miss something, everyone hears about it.
Many things missed, however, are not so obvious. That is one of the problems with multi-tasking. When you seek to do several tasks at the same time, you may miss what is really important, inspiring, or helpful. When you are speaking on the phone and reading email at the same time, you may miss the ache or frustration in a person's voice. When you are focused on your smart phone, you may miss a beautiful sunset or flower. One writer said, "The world's most beautiful garden might as well be an asphalt parking lot if you pound through it while barking into your cell phone."
A big challenge in effective listening is being able to pay attention solely to what the person you are listening to is saying. During conversations I've seen people answer cell phones or read a text message or check email. Not only is this rude, but that person may be missing important time with important people with important information.
Since you think four to five times faster than you can talk, chances are high that you will miss a significant piece of information. We have all messed up the directions when finding an unfamiliar location and ended up on the east side of town instead of the west side—that is, until along came the GPS. However, that little magic box can keep us from paying attention to the highway as we drive. So we are constantly struggling with paying attention. How can we keep from missing the important, the valuable, and the memorable?
Exercise your mind to learn to focus. For example, you can learn a second language. This makes you pay better attention to the words people use in conversation because you have been studying what that word or sentence means in another language. Because languages have different pronunciations, you will be more sensitive to the tone and pitch of a person's voice. These benefits are in addition to the mental exercise of memorizing words in a different language. I'm being tutored in Spanish and the time I devote to memorization and comprehension certainly motivates me to concentrate.
Carve out quiet time in your daily schedule. When you are quiet for a while, you tend to pay better attention when you do engage in conversation or sit at your computer reading email or composing a letter. Quiet time gives you an opportunity to think and prepare mentally for the important tasks of the day or significant meetings you must contribute to. This might involve spiritual meditation, a walk in the woods observing nature, sitting by a creek enjoying the background sounds, or simply pondering areas important to you for the day as you sit in your favorite chair at home.
Expose yourself to new ideas, activities, and knowledge. When you move out of your common routine, you tend to see things you have never seen before or look at events in a new light. Ballroom dancing has given my wife and me opportunities to know more about the beat and time of music, identify different kinds of music, and visit places to dance that we had never seen before.
Read a book out of your field. Travel to other countries and learn about other cultures. After spending several weeks in Thailand, I pay better attention to ethnic foods and dress.
You only have a finite amount of time to live; don't miss the important. As Paulo Coelho wrote, "You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one; each day brings a miracle of its own. It's just a matter of paying attention to this miracle."
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. You can contact him at 800.727.6520. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening.