You know the feeling. You have felt it. It is a sinking feeling followed by panic. Someone is talking to you and your mind drifts. And now they say, “What do you think?” And you think, but don’t say, “About what?.” Yikes! Whether you are distracted by a Laguna Beach sunset, your own thoughts on the subject the speaker is talking about or just plain bored, drifting happens. Let’s face it, it is challenging to just completely quiet your mind. Why? Because the human mind has been designed and evolved to be “ready.” A ready mind is active and active minds tend to wander. Imagine what our ancestors were called if they had a quiet mind in the middle of the Savannah? The answer? Dinner. How should we handle it when we drift in the middle of a conversation and what are some tips to reduce “drift?”
If you “wake up” in the middle of a conversation, the most emotionally intelligent thing to do is tell the truth. Stop the speaker and say, “I am so sorry, my mind drifted. Here is the last thing I remember.” There may be temporary disappointment or rebuke for your mind drift, depending upon the relationship, but you will find that honesty about “mind drift” is the best strategy in dealing with the speaker you neglected. If they want to know what you were thinking about, you may not know. Minds don’t ask for permission when they drift. I tend to say my mother popped into my head when I don’t know why I drifted. Why not? Many of our habits, including listening, are formed in early childhood. I suppose I will know how many folks read this essay if someone I talk to says to me, “Sorry, my mind drifted. I was thinking about my mother.” It would be fun if that came back to me. Someone drifts while I am talking. I notice and say, “Hey, you okay,” and they say, “Sorry, I was thinking about my mother.”
What about the flip side of the drifting issue? Suppose you are talking and someone you are speaking to gazes off into the distance or otherwise disengages. This one is easy. Just stop talking. Wait. Both as a listener and a talker you need to pay attention to the body language of the person or persons you are with. A 1971 study said that 55% of communication is body language. The most important body language with respect to paying attention is the eyes. You can train yourself to tell whether someone has drifted away from you. Watch their eyes. As Mr. Miagi said to The Karate Kid, “Look Eye.” If their eyes look away, they are drifting. When their eyes look away, just stop talking – they will likely look at you and then you can start talking again. Try it.
Mind drift is a real detriment to listening. So here are some techniques to reduce your drifting tendencies.
1. Keep your eyes on the speaker’s face. If your eyes move, your mind wanders. Think about it. If you want to change your mind, you change your gaze. So keep your eyes focused and your mind is more likely to stay focused.
2. Pocket your device. We have modern distractions. When I was young we didn’t worry about who was trying to tweet, text, email or call us. Nowadays, if you can see or even feel your device, it triggers you to check it. Try and hold your PDA for an hour without checking to see who is “pinging” you one way or another.
3. Breathe and be aware of your tension. If you come into a conversation with tension, even unrelated to the speaker, you will not get much out of it. Tension draws you inwards and by definition you are less receptive to someone else. To reduce tension? In the Russian Martial Art we use breathing and segmented tension techniques to be aware of and eliminate tension. In basic terms you isolate and tense various muscles while you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out. This leads to awareness of and elimination of tension.
4. Embrace the tone of the speaker. Enjoy the tone and tempo of speech of the person with whom you are engaged. This will help you focus. The same 1971 study that found body language was 55% of communication found that voice tone was 38%. Everyone has a unique tone and tempo. Enjoy the differences.
5. Don’t Zombie listen. While you should empty yourself of tension and your own thoughts to focus on those speaking to you, don’t freeze. Get engaged with your speaker and let your body language flow with the conversation. Nod to reinforce things you agree with and withhold on things you disagree with. To listen well you should not interrupt but rather influence with your body language.
One of the most embarrassing interpersonal situations is to be caught ignoring someone who is earnestly trying to convey something to you. Our active minds drift. You can reduce the likelihood of mind drift by staying physically engaged, focused and tension free and engaging with the speaker physically. And if someone drifts on you? Just stop talking. A great conversation is like a dance – rhythmic and fun.Remember the importance of body language and tone. If you add the role of body language (55%) and tone (38%), and subtract from 100%, you arrive at the shocking conclusion of the 1971 study: Only 7% of communication is the actual words themselves.
If you are following along in my listening series, you should have already read, The Only Resolution You Need for 2015, To Listen Well is To Be Like Water, Love Song Lyrics and Listening Skills, Frosty, The Taz and Listening to Introverts, How to Listen to Your Angry Boss and I am Sorry to Interrupt You, But. All posts are under my profile on LinkedIn. This essay is the seventh in a planned series of 20 essays on listening.