Juggling versus Playing Catch

G.E.’s Beth Comstock made a great post over on LinkedIn about communication and the intricacies of actually being involved in a conversation. Facilitating good communication has been a large part of my career ever since I started working. However, my consulting experience is where I’ve been most deeply involved with helping people hear what one another are saying.


My work with Intulogy, Exardius, and ConciER have all involved situations where I’ve needed to either be the focus of a conversation, or I’ve needed to sit by quietly and watch how a conversation unfolds, and either influence it or report back on my findings. In both cases, I’ve seen what research–and Beth–hints at; a large percentage of communication occurs non-verbally and in many cases, most people spend their time formulating a response to a  comment that has yet to leave the speaker’s lips.

To see what I’m talking about, if you’re able, take a moment during the next meeting you’re in. Sit quietly and observe what happens. Watch as a conversation unfolds in front of you. In all likelihood, what you’ll see happen is the “listener” proverbially sitting on the edge of his seat while the speaker is speaking, just waiting to shoot back a response to her. The problem with this approach is rooted in how the mind works with conscious and unconscious thoughts–or more accurately, our controlled and automatic thought processes.

Beth notes in her article–a great one about Active Listening–that in business we pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task. The key problem is that human beings are pretty terrible multi-taskers, especially in this case. Your automatic mind tends to operate very quickly, out of your awareness, and is prone to things like biases and stereotypes, whereas your controlled mind operates more slowly, deliberately. and within your awareness, allowing you to counteract those biases. But, when your conscious mind has the most problems keeping your automatic mind from causing you problems is when it’s being taxed by your being tired, or when you’re trying your best to multi-task.

So, when you’re watching a conversation unfold like this, and you witness that person  trying to listen and formulate a response at the same time, he’s more likely to apply any biases and stereotypes to his response. However, if he uses Active Listening like Beth points out, he’s going to force his controlled mind to take over and evaluate what’s says, and not allow his automatic mind color how he receives her message. When she says, “I’m a world-class multi-tasker but I grudgingly admit that I’m a more effective listener when focused,” that’s the focus she’s talking about

Ultimately, listening actively is more like playing catch with someone, than it is like juggling. Imagine trying to play catch while you’re juggling. There’s probably only a handful of people in the world who can do that effectively and those people are making a great living in the circus or on the Las Vegas strip. However, almost anyone can catch a ball, transfer it to their on-hand, and then toss it back. And if you can play catch effectively that way, versus constantly dropping balls trying to get one back to your partner, why wouldn’t you?

So, next time you get into a conversation, work to be a world-class catch-player; don’t try to be a mediocre juggler.



Photo: © sherrie smith | Dreamstime.com

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Automaticity and the Graduate Student

If you’re not familiar with the concept of automaticity in the mind, it’s relatively easy to explain. You know how you’ve had those moments where you’ve been driving somewhere and your mind drifts? And suddenly, you’re several miles down the road, but you’ve made numerous lane changes and speed changes? That’s automaticity in a nutshell. We learn methods of doing things and get to the point of doing them intuitively without thinking about how to do them.

You can, of course, go back to doing things with thinking, but it actually takes work. Imagine that while you’re driving so automatically, in the previous example, that a car near you merges into your lane almost running you off the road. Very likely for at least a few minutes, you’ll be very focused on every single aspect of your driving.

So, given that I’m currently doing work in graduate school, and I spend a lot of time in the library databases, it’s not surprising when I go just to check the library’s hours to see if they’re open tomorrow and at what times, I ended up all of the way into PsycInfo, wondering what I needed to type into the search bar.

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Having trouble paying attention in a meeting? Doodle!

I was driving this morning and heard a very interesting piece on NPR.

You’ve probably heard throughout your life that if someone is doodling on paper during a meeting or a training class, they’re probably bored and completely disengaged. However, new research pretty much debunks that and when you look at the logic behind it, it does make a lot of sense.

Basically, the brain is a machine that’s geared to process information, and since human perception has multiple inputs there’s a lot of information for it to pull from. When the brain doesn’t have enough to keep it busy, it starts looking for other things to do. Generally it has a couple of choices. One is to daydream, which equals total disengagement. The other is something like doodling, which means that it’s in creation mode. When you’re doodling, you’re still using the information that’s coming in, even if you feel like you’re disengaged.

A researcher took this information and created a study where participants had to listen to a long, boring phone message. The researcher then asked people afterwards to see how many pieces of information they could recall. When she broke it down by people who doodled and people who didn’t, the people who doodled were able to remember significantly more.

If you’re interested, go read the article and listen to the webcast. There’s some really interesting information in there about who doodles and how the British press mistook Bill Gates’ doodles for Tony Blair’s and had some really unkind things to say about him.

Bored? Try Doodling to Keep the Brain on Task.

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