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Be Present When You Are Present

by Stephen D. Boyd, PhD, CSP, WCPS

The single greatest key to success in life is paying attention. Because of dealing with cell phones, Blackberries, iPods, pagers, television, computers, radio, highway noises, and conversations, we have a hard time paying attention.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, our multitasking has prompted researchers to identify the “surfer’s voice,” the monotone vocal quality we use when we are doing several things at once. In one period of time, you might be answering an email, talking on the phone, and keeping track of a news story on television.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that multitasking motorists are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than more attentive motorists who don’t dab on make-up, eat breakfast, or chat on cell phones as they are driving.

Our culture fosters inattentiveness. Have you ever driven such a familiar route that one day you arrive at your destination and don’t remember how you got there? Scary, isn’t it! That which becomes routine often promotes inattention. This can be just as true with people we work with each day as it is with familiar landmarks on a highway. So remember that familiarity can not only breed contempt, it also can cause you not to pay attention. You have to be present when you are present.

Remember–the more difficult the conversation context, the less likely we can do other things and still listen well. If you are seeking to understand what the other person is saying or to make a decision on the information someone is giving to you, you must avoid doing other things. This is not important when you are listening to the radio as you drive to work since music does not require your undivided attention. But people do. Here are some ways to improve your PA-IQ—your paying attention score.

Listen for the point being made. Because you can think four to five times faster than someone can talk, it is easy to be distracted. Thus seek to center your attention on the conversation by asking yourself, “What is the point he/she is making?” This will help you stay with the person talking. As you listen, think of questions you might ask about the subject matter you are receiving.

Watch for facial expression. The face is the focal part of the body. Looking at the face will provide cues from the other person to indicate his or her mood or attitude as he or she speaks to you.

I asked a caricaturist friend how he makes each face unique and captures so well the essence of each person. His response was, “I look at the shape of the face, and then the facial expression.” But what surprised me about the answer was what he said next: “And I do that by engaging the person in conversation. Hearing the person talk helps me focus on his or her uniqueness.”

I was fascinated by the age guesser at the Indiana State Fair’s Midway, so I asked what he looks for in a person to guess her or his age. His response was, “I just look at the person and go on instinct. I do not look at the people around him or her or anything about his appearance. I just concentrate on the face.” You can apply some of the same philosophy in paying attention.

Look for content that you can especially identify with. Does the person state something that connects to your job, family, hobby, home state, or favorite sport?  Even if nothing he or she says relates to you, just the mental discipline of checking on a connection will motivate you to pay better attention.

Anticipate challenges in paying attention. Take a moment to think about your conversation before the meeting or phone call. This allows you create the mindset to pay attention. Tape a note on the front of your phone that simply says, “Pay attention!”

In the movie “Gosford Park,” Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, says, “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation.” She knew how to be present when she was present. The same can be said of a good listener.

A long-distance truck driver at his retirement was asked how he could drive over two million miles in his career without an accident. His response was, “You look a mile down the road for brake lights.”

In other words, anticipate. The same is true with paying attention in conversation. Anticipate what can keep you from paying attention and seek to eliminate the possibility.

Don’t schedule every minute of the day. Have gaps in your appointments so you have time to take care of unexpected events that can sap your attention. Do what you have to do to take care of new issues before your next appointment.

Develop attention triggers. An attention trigger is simply an object, word, or environment that reminds you to pay attention. A former employer of mine had in his office a listening chair. When he chose to sit in that chair away from his desk, he disciplined himself only to listen.

Pick out an inanimate object in your office before making a phone call. Look at it as you talk so you will not be distracted by people walking by or other noises. Perhaps you choose a paperweight that you touch on your desk that reminds you to pay attention to the person across the desk from you or on the phone with you.

I remember a boss I  worked  with who got a nervous tic under her right eye anytime she was frustrated or angry. This helped those who knew her to appreciate better the context of her message. These mental exercises will help you focus on the message.

Sit or stand where you can make easy eye contact with the person speaking. Just this nonverbal connection will encourage you to concentrate. This is also a benefit to sitting close to the speaker in an audience, because you are in a position to make easier eye contact with the speaker and thus enhance your concentration.

Avoid barriers such as a desk, table, or chair between you and the speaker to encourage careful attention. When my wife had parent conferences as part of her job as an elementary school teacher, she found that discussions went more smoothly when she sat beside the parents rather than across the desk or table from them. Both parties could better pay attention.

Apply self-discipline. Tune people in—don’t tune people out. If you don’t have time to give complete attention to the person, tell the person that so you do not allow your mind to wander while you fake attention. Make an appointment for a later conversation.

Volunteer to take notes at a meeting as motivation to pay careful attention. Even if you don’t plan to share your notes with anyone, taking them will improve your concentration.

Remove distractions when possible. Close the door to your office when concentration is critical. Don’t answer the phone when people are talking to you. Avoid important conversations when you are hungry or are anticipating leaving the workplace for home. Provide an environment where paying attention is encouraged by circumstances and surroundings.

Make every word count. Seek to speak your message in as few words as possible. This will encourage you to concentrate on the message. We live in a society of words—too many words and often words that do not count. “You know,” “and everything,” “stuff,” and “let me be frank,” are typical, and as a result you get lazy with your thought process and struggle to focus. Think before you speak on how to say your message as concisely as possible.

One of the reasons we remember the words spoken when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, is because they were brief and succinct. You can still probably quote them. “Houston, Tranquility Base. The eagle has landed.” And then, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”  There were no unnecessary words.

In starting a conversation on the phone, begin with, “This is… , and I’m calling to…” So many people who call in to the talk shows begin with “How are you doing?” or “Thanks for taking my call,” or “I enjoy your show.” Start by giving your name and then your reason for calling and you begin with focus.

Calvin Coolidge was a man of few words. A young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly responded, “You lose.”

And in 1928, while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his succinct statements, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” Pay attention to conciseness in your message and others will be more likely to pay attention to your message.

Woody Allen said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” To be effective in human relations, you must be present, and you do that by paying attention.

©2012 Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, WCPS

Steve Boyd, Professional Speaker, Communications ExpertAbout the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Emeritus Professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations that want to speak and listen more effectively to increase personal and professional performance. He can be reached at (859) 441-4999 or info@sboyd.com.