Attention Please

I’ve noticed something lately – no one seems to be listening.

During an intense bout of post-holiday travel, I encountered many customer service personnel attending to the business of planes, trains and automobiles. Despite a fair amount of cheeriness given large crowds and weather-related delays, few appeared to pay attention to the matter at hand. Many seemed lost in their thoughts as they asked me questions I had already answered.

One morning at breakfast, I was greeted by a friendly server who enthusiastically described the omelet station that was available that day. “No thank you,” I told her, and gave her my simple order. My meal arrived promptly (and correctly), and as the server sat it down in front of me, she declared: “Your omelet ma’am.”

As days went on, it became clear that the problem was widespread. And, as was the case with the server, it seemed to be driven by a bias toward the listener’s thoughts.

The topic of my work last week was how to skillfully communicate relevant information to key stakeholders. In one of the exercises, participants have to relay the details of a presentation to other participants who are not in the room during the actual presentation. Then, those listeners recount the information to the original presenter. Predictably, the facts conveyed contained errors of omission, distortion – and even addition. We all had a chuckle when two honest individuals seemingly “made up” items that weren’t even discussed. And the learning point became clear when both admitted these items were things that were “on their minds,” or things they saw as important. The head-scratcher was that their biases so powerfully hijacked their listening, that they truly thought they had heard what they wanted to hear.

Even as I sat in judgment of the poor listening I was encountering, I found myself inattentive to the matter at hand. As I was preparing for the last workshop, I was deep in thought about a briefing I needed to give a particular participant I’ll call “Georgia.” Well, wouldn’t you know, at that very moment, Georgia walked in and sat down in front of me. I rushed over to greet her. “Hi Georgia, I was hoping you would arrive early – what a coincidence.”

Except that it was Ginny who had entered, not Georgia. I know both of them, and was immediately embarrassed by my mistake. Hijacked by my thoughts – just like everyone else I had been observing.

Whether you have an omelet bias or Georgia on your mind, consider that your interactions might be more effective if you work to stay present vs. lost in thought. The effects of not listening can range from minor annoyance to disaster. I vow to pay attention. How about you?

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