There’s a core foundational skill to understanding the people around us – the skill of being present. Present to the information we’re gathering and present to the other person.
There’s something a little woo-woo about the phrase ‘being present’ so let’s just consider what it means at an entirely practical level. It means not mentally drifting off into memories of the recent or distant past, nor jumping ahead to things we need to do this afternoon or later in the week but keeping ourselves entirely focused on this conversation, or even with the data we’re reading online, without physical or mental distraction.
That’s harder than it sounds. If you’ve had any experience with meditation, you’ll know the tendency of what is commonly called ‘the monkey mind’, to jump about from subject to subject, reacting to stimuli, or randomly and spontaneously spitting out thoughts uninvited. It can be tremendously difficult for the beginner meditator to find some space between the thoughts that lasts more than a few seconds and can take many years to develop a practice of deep and abiding mental peace.
So it is with being present in our work and in meetings. Certainly, some work is absolutely all-consuming, which is why we can experience a state of flow when engrossed for instance in project work or knotty problem solving. Our brain is so fully occupied, it has very little chance to jump about in an unconscious and distracted manner.
Meetings, however, I think it would be fair to say, are rarely that absorbing. Indeed, we have become so accustomed to multiple inputs via multiple sources, at all times, that simply having a meeting with a colleague for 20 minutes can seem like an impossibly long period of time to concentrate. Making the effort to be fully present for the other person, to deeply listen to their words and the implications of those words, is a feat almost unheard of in the modern workforce.
The benefits of our efforts, however, are enormous. It massively improves the likelihood of a thorough and correct understanding of the situation, of building rapport, trust and willingness to cooperate or collaborate and is in fact far more personally satisfying.
It can, however, be difficult, taking practice and regular reminding. Recently my son was invited to a roller-skating catch up with a few friends. Their mothers are all women I really like, two of whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Admittedly the skate rink is a difficult environment with relatively loud music and the kids coming and going from the table as they spied fresh batches of chips arriving, but to be frank, it’s not radically different from many work environments with their open plan offices, birthday cake morning teas and desk-side drop-ins. Listening, particularly under those circumstances, requires focused concentration. In my case at the skate rink, I had to consciously make effort to make full eye contact, connect, pull myself fully into the conversation and keep myself there.
I remember a lovely and wonderfully honest lady in a workshop one day talking about how you should never invite her for a coffee meeting because she’s so busy people-watching and distracted by thoughts like “ooh, nice handbag” that it becomes a complete waste of time.
The wonderful Manager Tools podcast series talk about the most potent tool of a manager being that of having weekly, half-hour, 1-on-1 meetings with each of your direct reports. The format, for reasons best left to a stand-alone blog, should follow an agenda of roughly 10 minutes for them to talk about whatever’s on their mind – business or personal- 10 minutes for you and 10 minutes to discuss future plans. In reality, it might end up being 25 minutes for them and just 5 for you at the end. The point of the exercise is to get to know them as fully, deeply and consistently over time as possible, to show interest, to learn more about them, their interests, cares, dreams, goals and concerns. In and of itself, this tool accounts for 30% of a manager’s capacity to achieve the ultimate goal of producing results while retaining their team.
These meetings, however, will be fruitless, if we’re unable to be fully present with the other person. Need I say, at a bare minimum, we need to turn off our phone and not have the PC in front of us. If you need to take notes, make them hand-written. A computer screen of any sort creates a physical and psychological barrier.
The next step is to set your body and mind to the task at hand. Face your body towards them, show obvious signs of listening (nodding, grunting and eye-brow raising as appropriate!) but rather than doing these things as a ‘technique’ we need to do them from a mind-set of genuine interest. If you are not genuinely interested, find an angle or learn more about the topic in your own time so you can ask more potent questions next time.
This is not a peripheral, optional or frilly part of your job. It’s core to achieving superior communication in a world where superior communication frankly isn’t hard to achieve considering how deeply distracted and disengaged most people are. So get focused. Simply having the intention of taking your communication to the next level will help you to do so and in the process, make a significant contribution to the quality of your relationships.