On our way to a park, one of my grandchildren started to sprint across a street to the swings and sliding boards. I corralled the boy and explained, as his parents already had, that two tons of metal, plastic, and rubber going 30 miles per hour don’t mix well with 6-year-olds.
“You stop, look, and listen,” I said, pantomiming that dictum that every kid should have engraved on the brain.
Judging from the way he kept eyeballing the jungle gym across the way, I’m pretty sure my grandson wasn’t hearing a thing I said.
Many of us are just as easily distracted. The next time you’re in a sports bar, for example, watch for a couple engaged in conversation. The woman is talking and looking directly at her companion. The guy’s nodding his head, and maybe he’s catching every word out of her mouth, but his eyes keep sidling away to the big screen where the Packers are playing the Bears.
Better yet, note the number of people in the room staring at a phone while others at their table are conversing.
Ours is the great age of distraction. From subway and bus ads to media or to our phones, someone or something is always trying to snag our attention. Surveys show, for example, that employees daily spend considerable time at work surfing the internet, checking out social media, or shopping online. And who hasn’t spoken to an employer, a friend, or even a spouse about some important matter, only to realize that they’re missing in action? Conversely, how many of us have listened to a friend’s troubles while privately pondering some extraneous topic, such as whether we’ll have time over the weekend for some tennis?
Distractions damage our workplace performance, our focus at home, and, eventually, our ability to handle troubles expeditiously. Given free rein, this neglect can even destroy marriages and ruin relationships.
The solution? We learned that about the same time that we were learning to read.
If Mike sticks his head into your office and asks, “Got a minute?” close your laptop and wave him into the opposite chair. Right off the bat, you’ve signaled your availability and interest.
If your 15-year-old asks, “Can we talk a minute?” put down the phone, pat the space beside you on the sofa, and swing your entire body toward her. Whatever she has to say, she knows you’re ready to hear her.
Stop means shutting down distractions.
The adolescent who doesn’t want to get nailed by a car looks both ways, up and down the street. The person seeking to give attention to others does so by looking at them. This tells them that we’re ready to listen, and it reminds us to be present.
You can “look” at someone even when you’re on the phone. If you’re washing the dishes when your mom calls to wonder for the umpteenth time when you’re coming for a visit, instead of shaking your head and rolling your eyes, put down the dishcloth and speak to her as if she were there and not some disembodied voice.
When listening to a friend or relative, how many of us keep interrupting, injecting our two cents into the conversation before they’ve finished speaking? How many of us are absorbing what’s said, rather than letting our thoughts fly off in a dozen directions?
Just as you can’t truly listen while weeding the garden, sweeping the floor, or playing with your phone, you can’t listen if you’re cranking out solutions instead of hearing the problems.
Shoving aside distractions and zeroing in on people will improve our work performance, our love life, and our relationships. And here’s some more good news: It’s as simple as crossing a street.