On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a multi-tasker are you?
Honestly? I’m probably an 11.
And I’m not entirely sure how my life would work if I weren’t that way. Sometimes, doing two things at once is the only way I get anything done at all! I get caught up on work emails while I run on the elliptical in the mornings. I listen to a devotional while I eat lunch. If I’m driving, or in an airport, I’m making phone calls. The impulse I have to do, do, do is part of who I am, and it’s a big part of how I built a successful career.
It can also be a huge liability.
I am constantly trying to figure out how to be even more efficient with my time so that I can do more.
But there are times when what I really need to be focusing on is how to do less.
Times when I need to be still. To focus solely on the moment. To listen with my whole self, rather than just taking in information.
Like when one of my kids has something on her heart that she really needs to share. Or when my husband wants to connect with me over a romantic dinner. Or at work, when someone is asking for help with a complex problem.
My daughter Annie is actually an incredible listener; the kind of person who is able to put everything aside in order to make you feel heard and understood and cared for. She knows right away if she doesn’t have my full attention, and she’s not afraid to call me on it when she catches me “listening partially.”
The truth is, I’m not a naturally gifted listener. It’s something that I’ve had to work at, and I’m still working on it. To help myself stay focused, I’ve invented a little listening mantra for myself. When a situation comes up where I know that I need to listen carefully, I say to myself: “Diane, put your cell phone away.”
I mean it literally, but also figuratively. For a multi-tasking addict like me, the cell phone is a big deal. That one little piece of technology holds and organizes and enables so much of my life. Physically removing it from my field of vision—or even turning it off altogether—is usually enough to jolt me out of the “do-do-do” zone and into listening mode. It’s my little way of mentally flipping the switch.
Now, there are going to be times when you do need to be available by phone, no matter who you’re meeting with. When Annie was very sick last year, I often apologized to people for keeping the phone handy, explaining that I had a child who was very ill and might need to reach me, and asking if that was okay for them. I found that explaining the situation and asking permission goes a long way towards making people feel like I valued them and the time they were taking to meet with me.
Since I started mindfully setting my phone aside whenever feasible, I’ve noticed a lot more when other people do it too. I’m always especially impressed when young women make a point of doing so.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see a “master listener” in action. I was visiting with Brittany Merrill Underwood, founder of The Akola Project, a nonprofit that ministers to the people of Uganda through skills training and other development initiatives. Brittany founded Akola while she was still an undergraduate. Now 30, she travels throughout the world, sharing her vision and promoting Akola products. She is constantly being asked for her time and attention. She is busy, seriously busy. The day I met with her, it was late on a Friday evening, she had just returned to Dallas from L.A. and was preparing to leave for Uganda on Sunday. We’ve met once or twice before, but we aren’t close friends. She had every reason to let her attention wander, but from the minute she walked through the door until she left two and half hours later, she was wholly present, and totally focused on our conversation, checking her phone only once when she knew it was her husband texting.
I was impressed that someone as young and as pressed-upon as Brittany would be so attentive and focused. It brought to mind one of my own mentors, Frances Hesselbein. Frances, a renowned leadership expert, believes that focused listening and leadership go hand in hand. She loves to quote Peter Drucker on the topic: “the leader of the future asks; the leader of the past tells. Ask, don’t tell.”
Are you a natural-born listener or do you have to work at it? Tell me in the comments, and then ask a question of your own!