The Lost Art of Listening

I had an epiphany the other night and it’s not good.  I’ve become an amazing multi-tasker.  This was a skill I didn’t have at all 10 years ago but is one that I’ve really honed in the last 5.  It’s partly a requirement of the corporate culture where I work but it also seems to be a byproduct of the connected world in which we’re living.

I can carry on multiple streams of thought, read and compose emails, study spreadsheet data, and manage up to 4 or 5 instant messenger sessions without skipping a beat or making a mistake.  One of my coworkers complements me on how efficient I am and envies my ability to pull this off.  She shouldn’t.

I never set off to develop nor refine this skill… it just sorta happened.  Years ago I began using IM to keep in touch with colleagues in other locations and soon found it useful for back-channel conversations during conference calls.  It began harmlessly enough, asking clarifying questions or getting data from others to keep a meeting moving.  In pretty short order we were using it to have a bit of fun during meetings as well.  So I became good at carrying on a phone conversation and an IM thread as well.

As I moved from an individual contributor role and into management the need to multi-task jumped dramatically.  Multiple IM conversations during meetings became a necessity, making it possible to have answers at my fingertips and to coach my employees through difficult situations.  As my role in the org expanded so did the my need to be continually connected and available.  I was no longer able to sit in a meeting without checking the incoming mail every 10 minutes or so to make sure there were no escalations or firedrills awaiting my attention.

As the pressures of the job increase so has the expectation to be available to everyone everywhere.  I’m not convinced this was a requirement, perhaps it was just that I felt it was a requirement.  I’ve become a master of multi-tasking, keeping many threads of conversations distinct and moving forward smoothly and rapidly.  It helps that I’m a decent typist.

But a few months ago I started noticing a problem.  I can’t focus!  It’s hard to sit and read a lengthy article or wordy email or write a sizable document.  I find myself skimming it and I keep wondering what else is waiting in my email or who might be available on IM to follow up on some little item I need done.   I find my mind wandering to the other streams of communication that are awaiting my attention.

This problem transcends the computer… my attention span for long television shows and sporting events is waning, I start wanting the show to end so I can get back to check my email.  And even during conversations I’ll catch my mind wondering to my mental to-do list or to something I read earlier in the day; sometimes I’ll even find myself tuning my ear to another conversation happening near-by.  I’ll stare right at the speaker’s mouth, look them in the eye, but not hear a word they are saying.

The more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve realized that this problem started long ago and has been growing steadily and proportionally to my need and ability to multi-task.  Yes, I can do 20 things at once but I have the attention span of a 5 year old.  I don’t mean to do this, it’s not that I don’t care about the speaker’s thoughts or feelings, but I feel this (likely self imposed) pressure to stay on top of things, so the immediate conversation becomes a low priority in my head.

I’ve started forcing myself to lock my computer screen when I’m on the phone and to leave it in my office when I go to meetings and presentations.  The temptation to stay connected is just too great.  I find that I’m really engaged in meetings and conversations with people who are in my office but I’m still struggling with meetings over the phone.  This is largely because I take notes on my computer, so I’m less likely to turn it off during phone meetings.

I didn’t get like this on purpose… I have to find a way to make the here-and-now more important to me than the 40 things whizzing their way toward my inbox.  But hey, at least I recognize what’s going on, that’s gotta count for something!

Maybe there’s a society for the terminally connected or a 12-step program to cure some lengthily named condition I have.  Pah!  I’ll fix it… I’m good at fixing things once I know they’re broken.  And I’m honest about it… when I get caught I just say “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t listening closely…” and pull my focus back in.

So if you catch me faking a conversation, know that I’m not a complete jerk, I’m just multitasking!  😛

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~ by brianherman on May 3, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Lost Art of Listening”

  1. My kids don’t like me to carry my phone on weekends. I check my email too often. I’m learning to discipline myself.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Yes, this is so me as well! And it’s really bad! It’s a good wake up call because I need to fix it.

    Nice blog. I dropped in here by way of a dead link from WordPress – Project Management as Leadership. It’s a good title, too bad I couldn’t find it 🙂

    Cheers,
    -Lui

  3. I found this by accident while searching for a similar thing that’s happening to me. I used to be a great multitasker but never got to this point that you’ve come to. I could do several things at once and do them very good and fast, in full focus. But now that I’ve gone through some social problems and solitude and changed the circle of people I hang out with…Things have turned the other way. It’s very hard for me to do several things at once and do them good. And even when focusing on that one thing my mind can quickly wander. Sometimes I try to mantain eye contact while talking and that act alone is enough so I can barely comprehend what the person is talking about. If I want to hold a decent conversation I have to just look somewhere and not see anything at all and fully concentrate on the speaker, on listening. I also have the attention span of a 5 year old but whenever something breaks my attention the other thing gets full attention. If I look at something interesting and focus on it I don’t listen, I don’t think, I just look. I’ve been trying to multitask but it’s just not working and it’s pissing me off because I’m far from dumb but it takes a while for me to generate appropriate responses to people sometimes just because I was focusing on listening. So I would rather be in your situation <_<

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