When is the last time you enjoyed an undistracted conversation with another person? Whether we are talking with an important client, a close friend or a favorite family member, most of us struggle with staying focused in our interactions. What makes it so difficult to experience a good, healthy dialogue in today’s world? The answer may seem obvious. Certainly with the increase in technology, we have become comfortable with texts, tweets and quick emails rather than enjoying real-life connections. And as much as we love our smart phones, they may be one of the biggest culprits in keeping us disengaged.
Interestingly, a study by the University of Essex revealed that simply having a cell phone visibly present in the room made people less likely to develop empathy or intimacy during meaningful conversations. Even if no one checked their phone – just having it visibly in the room lowered the level of engagement!* Isn’t it amazing to think of the power that little device has in our lives and especially over our ability to listen and focus with others? So what is the key to staying sincerely connected to the person with whom we are talking? Here are a few tips to help you stay mentally focused as you communicate with others.
Reduce Environmental Distractions. Put the phone away and out of site. The texts, notices and emails can wait until you are finished with your conversation. Additional distractions may be noise or other people in the room. Recently I met a friend for lunch at our neighborhood grill, and my chair faced toward the door. Bad idea! I knew half the people coming into the restaurant and felt an obligation to say hello to each of them. You can imagine the depth of engagement I had with my friend as we talked together. The better bet for me is to sit at the back of the restaurant or at least sit in a direction that doesn’t face the door. If there is a television in the room, turn it off or move to a place where it is not going to pull your attention away from the other person.
Reduce Mental Distractions. If you have an important email, phone call or task looming over you, take care of it before you enter into a conversation. Even if you need to ask the person to meet a little later. The less urgent things you have floating around in your mind, the better you will be able to tune into the other person. If at all possible schedule your day so that you take care of the more difficult tasks earlier in the day, then you will be able to focus on the one-on-one meetings you have with people later in the day.
Create a Focal Point. Last week, I mentioned the importance of eye contact when you are interacting with another person. Now, you don’t want to overdo it, but studying the other person’s eyes can help you pay closer attention. Sometimes I will challenge myself to remember the person’s eye color when I am finished with a conversation. Eyes are the window to the soul, so if you can stay generally focused on the eyes, you may be surprised how much you will learn.
Ask Questions. Asking questions (and then of course listening to the answers) will encourage deeper understanding and will help you maintain focus in your conversations. Ask questions like: How did that make you feel? How did you accomplish that? What is your secret? When did this happen? Most people love to talk about themselves or their experience, and asking good questions shows that you care about them and what they are saying.
Write it Down. There are times we become mentally distracted because a thought pops into our mind and we want to share it. Instead of interrupting or allowing your mind to wander with what you want to say, pull out a pen and quickly jot down a word or two to help you remember that thought, so you can bring it up later. I’ve been known to use shopping receipts or paper napkins or placemats to put my thought on to paper and out of my head. This little trick can help you maintain your interest in what the other person is saying without forgetting your thought.
The truth is, the deepest cry of every person’s heart is to be understood. True connection comes through listening well to others, going beyond superficial words and diving deep into the heart. May we sincerely see and hear the people God puts in our path. In a distracted culture, let’s make a deliberate effort to practice focused engagement with each person we encounter.
To love you as I love myself
is to seek to hear you as I want to be heard
and understand you as I long to be understood.
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