When my glass of tomato juice showed up with ice in it, I asked the flight attendant if he would please bring the juice with no ice. He asked with surprise, “You don’t want the ice?!” I replied, “I’d really appreciate it without the ice. Sensitive gums and all.” My seatmate said he heard me say ‘no ice’, twice as I was ordering.
This isn’t about the ice. It’s about the success we create and time we save in our lives when we truly pay attention. The opposite rarely ends well. Inattention, and the frustrated interactions that are created because of it, are becoming the norm. The rote-ness with which many of us go about our day is astounding. If we don’t begin training our attention in schools and at work, then when social scientists look back on us 250 years from now they will determine that the perfect day for our species was to avoid being interrupted by anything that required our attention; that we failed when it came to fulfilling simple requests; that relationships worked best when we didn’t require too much interest in the other’s day, much less life.
The world’s ever increasing demands for our attention are creating an overwrought state of mind. It’s causing us to miss out on the small nuances in personal and professional relationships – the things that make a big difference. We are mostly paying attention to “big chunk” items and missing the small things that indicate to another person, “I hear you. I see you. I respect you”. Our relationships are becoming as frustrating as looking for our lost car keys. If you look at what goes awry, you’ll find that it’s directly linked to being highly skilled at inattention. We can free ourselves from the frustration of both issues by becoming highly skilled at paying attention. But, because we are human, we have the blessing and curse of being able to be doing something right now, while nearly simultaneously thinking about something that we need to do next week. As my colleague, Carla Street likes to say, we aren’t multi-tasking, we are multi-failing, because science shows us that the brain can only attend to one thought at a time. We are splitting our attention rapidly when we aren’t mindful and our messy interactions are what we have to show for it.
Think of all the things we would accomplish if we paid real attention throughout our day. We would avoid the blame game over who said what and when. We would gain back the time wasted in repeating steps because we didn’t pay attention the first time. We would make colleagues and loved ones feel more important. We would be more successful at our jobs.
Try a few things to train your attention. Do some or all every day and they will become a part of who you are.
- Attend to one thing at a time. One of geometry’s greatest findings is a simple one. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It also applies to attention. The shortest distance between understanding me or a specific situation is to pay attention exclusively to me or to the situation. If you believe that such linear behavior will be too time consuming, consider the time it takes to do something over because you did it wrong the first time. We perform at our very best, one activity at a time.
- Look me in the eye. The impact of direct eye contact when communicating cannot be underestimated. It focuses the brain. We generally pay attention to what we are looking at. I witness too many people who serve the public, buried in their computer screens even while they are talking to their customer (think about airline gate agents, retail clerks, the motor vehicle department).
Recently, I stayed at an Embassy Suites in the Dallas area. When I checked in, a woman named Kenya greeted me warmly. We chatted, laughed and connected. It’s an Embassy Suites. Nice. Clean. But not the Waldorf Astoria. My eye-to-eye interaction with her made the hotel seem luxurious. So simple. So often overlooked. A competitive advantage for Hilton and its properties if they make it a cultural norm. Be luxurious with your eye contact.
- Notice what is important to me. The ability to pick up on the social cues that tell you what is important to another person means the difference between a deep relationship – business or personal – and a surface one. In an episode of NBC TV’s dramatic series, This is Us, (not a scene spoiler) one of the minor married relationships in the show went to dinner with one of the starring show’s couples, Jack and Rebecca. The friends took Jack and Rebecca to dinner to tell them that they were getting a divorce. When asked why – that everything seemed ok between them – the man in the couple reminisced that his soon-to-be ex-wife couldn’t really get started in the morning without a big jolt of caffeine. So every morning for their 15 year marriage, he would make her a cappuccino and bring it to her in bed. Then one morning, he got distracted and for the first time in their marriage he forgot to make the cappuccino. She didn’t notice and neither did he. “Why are we getting divorced? Because somewhere along the way, we stopped noticing each other.”
That is profound and so true. When we notice the small things that are important to a customer, a friend or a loved one and then act on them, we have committed the single greatest act of attention we can. That requires looking up and observing. It requires listening. It requires setting aside what we would prefer and giving them what they prefer.
It’s often the small things that make that make the big difference. By sharing some of your mental real estate with me, you bestow one of the greatest gifts you have to give. Use it to surprise and delight. Use it and revel in the results of a life well-attended. Give me a piece of your mind.