5 minutes reading time (1072 words)

Attention Please!

Did you know that on average it takes just 17 seconds [1] before someone interrupts you, or you interrupt them? Only 17 seconds! Such a short time before someone disrupts your train of thought, changes your direction or hijacks the conversation.

wordle TtT article

Some years ago, while training to be a business coach, I had taken the role of coachee in a practice coaching session. I was relaxed and enjoying experiencing the unusual and novel situation of being listened to when I was thinking aloud. I was
silent for a while; too long for my coach (also a trainee) who did not notice that I was still thinking and interrupted me with a question.

My reaction was immediate anger, and then I burst into tears. We were both shocked at this unexpected and out of character response. Initially I did not understand and could not explain what had happened to me. It was not till much later that I realised why and said, 'You interrupted me'.

Well, that was rather an extreme reaction but how damaging is interruption? What happens when you are interrupted? Interruption triggers your 'fight or flight' response which causes the 'avoid' hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol to flood the cortex. Several changes in the body occur such as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and the onset of other physical symptoms resulting in slower thinking.

According to Nancy Kline; [2]
'When we come in too soon, we can extinguish fresh, even brilliant, independent thinking'. I wonder what brilliant thinking I might have achieved that day.

interruption produces adrenalin -> adrenalin reduces attention -> reduced attention inhibits our ability to think for ourselves

What level of attention do you give?

....to your colleagues?

....to your friends?

....to your family?

....to your children?

Attention is the most important behaviour in creating the right environment for people to think and perform at their best. This means giving other people your utmost attention by listening with genuine respect and interest, and most importantly without interruption.

This level of attention is more than attentive listening, as described by some coaches and those who believe themselves to be good listeners, but listening with the attention of your whole being.

It is not listening waiting for a chance to get a word in edgeways, to reply, voice your opinion or give advice - but listening without any interruption and without being distracted. That means not continuing to type, use your phone, shuffle papers, look out of the window or over the shoulder of the person speaking. It is a qualitative difference in how you pay attention, not a quantitative measure of clocking in the time spent listening.

This quality of attention is when the listener is looking you in the eyes (in the western world) and their body language is telling you they are truly interested and that you can finish what you want to say. They are providing you with attention that generates your best thinking, the kind of thinking that makes a difference, that brings about change – transformative thinking. In knowing that you won't be interrupted you will be able to think for yourself, complete your thoughts and perhaps even move your thinking on to the next level. You will come up with your own solutions, work things out for yourself, make better decisions and be more creative. All of this can happen in a shorter period of time than without that generative attention.

As the listener, trust the intelligence of the person speaking and stop yourself interrupting. How do you know:

  • Your idea is better than theirs?
  • Your story is more interesting?
  • What they were about to say, so finish the words for them?
  • You won't get a chance to say what you want to say?
  • Interrupting them will save time?

Think about whether what you want to say is of more value than the thinking that someone does for themselves. If you do this, you will not interrupt. To interrupt them would be like poking a stick between the spokes of their bike, stopping them in their tracks. It can be that intrusive.

You might already be good at giving attention but how could you help others to increase their attention and reduce how often they interrupt?

One way to get started could be by introducing a few simple 'groundrules' at meetings and see what a difference they can make:

  • Put phones off
  • Listen to whoever talks with respect and great attention
  • Do not interrupt
  • Give equal turns, for broadly an equal amount of time and with equal attention
  • Give everyone an opportunity to contribute several times using rounds.

In a round, an open question is asked, a direction is set and then starting with a
volunteer each person responds in turn to the question. Each knowing they will have their turn improves the quality of their attention while they are listening to the others. This requires the self-control of the speaker to stop before too long, and trust on the part of the group that the speaker will stop and allow each of them to have a turn. This discipline may take time to establish but it is worth persevering. Often the pattern and self-control of others is sufficient to curb the possible over-lengthy input of someone who is used to holding the floor.

It is the introduction of non-interruption and equal turns that helps eliminate the dominance of such individuals and also allows contributions from those who are quieter or more reflective and often don't get the chance to speak. If someone has nothing to contribute they can pass or acknowledge that what they wanted to say has already been said, there is no need to repeat. This way everyone's voice is heard.

It is surprising how something as simple as several rounds in a meeting brings out the best thinking from everyone and increases the generative nature of the group's thinking. Using rounds helps to produce better ideas and better decisions in less time. And we all want those in our meetings!

For more on creating a Thinking Environment[3] and using it transform your meetings, please contact Anne Gibb at anne.gibb@agba.co.uk.

Anne Gibb is a business consultant and an accredited Time to Think facilitator.

www.linkedin.com/in/annegibb

[1] Dr Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages

[2] Nancy Kline, Time to Think Ltd, author of Time to Think and More Time to Think

[3] Nancy Kline, Time to Think Ltd

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Comments 3

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Guest - Geof Leigh on Tuesday, 17 June 2014 18:59

Excellent article. Depicts a bad behaviour that has and still irritates me, and better still explains why and the benefits of doing it the right way.

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Excellent article. Depicts a bad behaviour that has and still irritates me, and better still explains why and the benefits of doing it the right way.
Guest - Nigel Cutts (website) on Wednesday, 18 June 2014 12:34

Great article, Anne, which links to the growing Mindfulness movement. We just cannot emphasise enough what a difference our ability to be in the now is and how that affects our ability to pay full attention to whoever we are with.

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Great article, Anne, which links to the growing Mindfulness movement. We just cannot emphasise enough what a difference our ability to be in the now is and how that affects our ability to pay full attention to whoever we are with.
Guest - Anne Gibb on Sunday, 22 June 2014 14:27

Mindfulness is an excellent example of the application of great attention. I wonder what additional professional or personal experiences others of you might have for high quality or generative attention. Please share your thoughts.

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Mindfulness is an excellent example of the application of great attention. I wonder what additional professional or personal experiences others of you might have for high quality or generative attention. Please share your thoughts.