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Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows: Be Attuned in Conversations

Where attention goes, energy flows.  That is the name of a meditation in my current rotation on Insight Timer.  This concept applies to most things in life, including communication.  When we are interacting with others, we have the choice of where we place our attention. In conversation we have the option of focusing on ourselves or on the other person.  Mostly we shift back and forth absent-mindedly.  We can focus on ourselves without even realizing it. Have you ever found yourself tuning out the person talking to craft your own point or response?  I know I have. But, when we make a conscious choice about where to place attention, we become better communicators.  By intentionally focusing attention, we direct where our energy flows. Those with whom we are interacting perceive this through our nonverbal communication.  Although it is hard to put into words, we all intuitively know when somebody else is really paying attention to us or not.  

We become better communicators when we are intentional about where we place our attention; when we are attuned we gather more information about our environment, which leads to greater understanding and more options of how we respond.  We notice what is going on internally for ourselves and what may be going on for others by reading their body language and listening carefully to what they are saying.  It makes it easier for us to craft thoughtful and inquisitive responses to what they say because, by deliberately maintaining our attention on the person talking, we pick up more than just their words.  This skill takes practice; it does not happen when we absent-mindedly shift. 

We can practice this shifting of attention on inanimate objects or sounds in order for us to improve at intentionally shifting while in conversation.  Airports are a great place to practice while waiting for a flight. We can listen to the activities around us, bringing one into focus and ignoring the rest, and then switching to another and bringing that into focus.  For example, listen to the announcements about flights over the public address system for a minute, and then shift to listening to the airline attendants helping passengers check in.  We can shift our attention visually too, looking from one passenger to another in the waiting area, noticing something we see as positive about each of them.  In addition to being great practice in deciding where our attention and energy flows, this can also be quite entertaining.

We can also practice in everyday conversations with family and friends.  When others are talking, notice where your attention is focused. Where are you looking?  What are you hearing? Are you hearing every word said, or just some of the words and also the response you are planning in your head? Are you picking up what is being communicated through tone of voice or facial expressions? It is not beneficial for us to judge ourselve in this practice, just to notice and then set the intention of how to focus attention so energy flows in the desired direction. Practicing on a daily basis in low-stakes situations makes it easier to do in high-stakes conversations.

My clients that practice this intentional attention tell me that it becomes easier to really listen, that conversations flow much more naturally, and that they are surprised at how much more information they are able to learn from others.  In addition, they build a reputation for being thoughtful and attentive with the people in their company and industry, a key component for effective leadership.  

Avoid Saying ‘You’ ‘Always’ ‘Never’

When providing feedback, it’s all about the delivery. To achieve your end goal more often avoid the pronoun ‘you’ and avoiding generalizations when giving constructive criticism. Just think about how you felt the last time somebody said ‘You are always late for meetings’ or ‘You never do your share of the work’ – it triggers the defensive reflex.

The purpose of constructive criticism is to change future behavior, not to shame the person exhibiting the behavior. Use of the words ‘you’ and ‘always’ or ‘never’ when giving criticism raises people’s defenses and hinders effective communication, reducing the chance of changed behavior. When we hear ‘you’ we tend to react as if we are being personally attacked, even if that is not the intention. When we hear generalizations such as ‘always’ or ‘never,’ we tend to react as if it is not fair, because nothing is true 100 percent of the time.

These defensive human reactions have to do with the attribution bias, which is the human tendency to take personal credit when things go well and give responsibility to outside factors when things don’t. Attribution bias works just the opposite for others; we assign personal responsibility to others when things don’t go well and assign credit to outside factors when things do go well.

Given what we know about human nature, you will be much more effective as a leader if you carefully word your constructive criticism. To get a sense, just imagine yourself in these two scenarios and see how you feel.

Scenario One: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk into the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘You are always late.’

Scenario Two: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk in to the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘Let’s all try to be on time next Monday so we can start our week off right.’

If you are like most people, the first scenario feels like a personal attack and you think that factors out of your control were the cause of your lateness. The second scenario feels much more palatable because you think that factors out of your control made you late, but still acknowledge that it is better if everyone is on time.

As a leader, you can experiment with wording your criticism carefully and then watch the different reactions of those whose behavior you are trying to modify. The table below gives examples of alternative statements you can make while doing this experiment.

Instead of Saying This . . .   Say That
You never do your share of the work. Can you stop being lazy and get to work? Don’t you see that everyone else is working harder than you here? When we all contribute significantly, we all benefit from reaching our goals. What do you think your greatest contribution can be here? Is there anything that is hindering your efforts?
You always mess up projects. Your mistake is costing everyone. What were you thinking? How are you going to fix it? The mistake made on this project has significant consequences. What do you think we can do to correct it immediately and prevent it from happening again in the future?
The way you talk to coworkers always pisses everyone off and never gets you what you want. Why are you so rude? Since everyone has different styles of communication, it is helpful to adapt to others’ styles in the office. How can I help you to observe others and learn to adapt to their styles?

 

Odds are you will be pleasantly surprised at how switching just a few words can have a significant impact on the reaction of others and the achievement of your end goal of changed behavior.