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Attention in Conversation


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Attention in Conversation

Why our attention drifts | Really care about them | Shut out the world | Ask intelligent questions | Listen to the inner person | So what?


Great conversationalists and great leaders have a very particular skill in being able to sustain close attention to the other person when they are in conversation with them. This can be remarkably difficult as your mind easily wanders. Yet the amount of appreciation and connection you can build with this simple method makes it worth taking time to learn how to keep your attention fully on the other person.

Why our attention drifts

People speak at around 100 to 200 words per minute. Our minds work much faster than this. We typically read at beween 200 and 300 words per minute. And our minds work even faster (for example thinking about what will happen next in a story we are reading). In other words, we think a lot faster than people speak. Even between words, our minds are racing all over the place.

We are also motivated to think about other things while others are talking. We have many other things in our lives and on our minds and thoughts about these intrude while we should be listening. We also sum people up pretty quickly, deciding how much of our attention they deserve. As a result we often half-listen to people.

Even if we are trying to listen, we start thinking about what we will say next and start looking for a space in which we can interrupt. When we start doing this, we listen less.

And to be honest, much of what people say is relatively unimportant. They may have a point to make, but they add a lot in justification and irrelevant detail. While we all talk, many are inexpert communicators and are not good at speaking in ways that engage others.

Really care about them

Start inside yourself. Remember that you are human and fallible, yet amazing and interesting too. And that others, everyone, is also amazing, each in their own way. If you do not know this, and if others seem dull or dangerous, know that this is because you do not yet know enough of their story. Make it your mission to learn about them, rather than pressing your thoughts upon them or generally paying little attention to them.

Care about people. Respect the person, even if you may not be keen on what they have or have not done. Make it your mission to find out more about them, to understand how they see the world, what moves them and why. At the very least, suspend any judgement of them for the duration of the conversation. Beware of being quick to judge. This is a very human tendency but which can get in the way of connection and appreciation.

Shut out the world

With an appreciative beginning, decide you are going to give the next few minutes or so all to the person in front of you. Shut out what is happening around you. Shut out intruding thoughts. If anything starts to creep in, just re-focus and ignore it.

Look at the person. Gaze into their eyes while thinking about how you respect and care about them as a person, and that they have a story which you are seeking to understand (at least as much as you can in the time available).

Ask intelligent questions

Start by asking them a few questions that first make them feel comfortable (simple closed questions may do this). Then ask more open questions that give them scope to open up and talk about things that interest them. And little interests anyone more than themselves, their families and their lives.

Watch for questions to keep asking. We miss out much when we speak, yet we still give clues about the things that interest us. It may help also if you do some homework beforehand. Have a useful stock of questions that people seem to like answering (avoid boring cliché questions).

Listen to the inner person

Pay close attention to their answers, noting both what they say and how they say it. Notice their non-verbal signals. Notice the emotion or lack of it in their voices. Watch their gestures. Note how their body language changes with what they say.

Notice also what they do not say. Listen between the words for the person behind. Beware of jumping to conclusions about this, especially if they are negative. Hear their hopes and fears. Listen for clues about all parts of their lives. How important is their job to them? Are they married? Do they have children? What other family and friends? How do they spend their weekends?

Listen more than you speak. And when you do speak, use it to show your appreciate of them and connect with them. Many conversations are about status as people compete for superiority. Do not get drawn into such competition and do not initiate it.

Show that you are listening by paying attention, thinking about what they say and asking further questions. Be careful with this about probing too deeply based on the depth of the current relationship. Listen for points of commonality and connection. Show that you have similarity, but don't use this as a means of taking over the conversation.

So what?

Don't blindly take the advice above. Try it out. Build your skills in these areas. And find out how effective it is at getting people to think you are amazing.

See also

Conversation techniques, Questioning Techniques, Listening


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