Skip to content

Being Present

by David Brock on November 15th, 2011

The other day, someone called me.  He wanted to pick my brain (feeble pickings) for some ideas and ask for some help.  I was delighted with the call, both because he’s a prospect, and it was ego gratifying to be asked for the advice.  But the call ended up being a waste of time–mine and the prospect’s.

See, the problem was the multitasking being done by the prospect.  He was in a car–fortunately not driving, other people were in the car, having a different conversation, which my prospect would interrupt our conversation, to inject a comment into the other conversation.  There were also long pauses (and some background clicking), as I could hear him texting or emailing during our conversation.

I had to repeat myself several times, I could tell he wasn’t getting it, he clearly was distracted.  I suggested we speak later in the day, when he was in his office and could focus.  If this were an isolated incident with this individual, it may be excusable.  But it was his modus operandi–and it was the central issue to his effectiveness as a leader in the organization.  His people would tell me, “he isn’t listening, he’s always multitasking,”  “it takes 3-4 times of explaining the sale thing, until he understands.”  “he wastes my time.”  There was clearly a performance and morale problem in his organization–and his behavior was at the core of the problem.

Whenever I tried to confront it with him, he’d listen with one ear, looking at something on his computer screen, while simultaneously, texting,  and every once in a while injecting an “uh-huh,” or “what was that again?”

That afternoon, I called the executive up, it was to follow up on our conversation earlier in the day.  He said he was really glad I called, the issue was important, his boss was breathing down his neck.  As I started to speak, I started hearing the key board, hearing the distracted responses.  I stopped the conversation and hung up.

Moments later, my phone rang, it was the executive, “We must have been disconnected, what were you saying?”  I responded, “No we weren’t disconnected, I hung up.  Clearly, you aren’t ready to have this conversation.”

There was a moment of silence, “What do you mean, I need to get this done!” was the angry response.  I replied, “This apparently isn’t important enough for you to focus on it, so I’ll wait until you are ready to be present in our discussion.  Until then, we are wasting each other’s time.  Would you call me when you are ready to put everything aside and pay attention solely to our conversation?”  I then said good bye and hung up.

About 15 minutes later, my phone rang again.  It was the executive.  “I was so angry, I had to take a few minutes to calm down.  What do you mean?”  I explained to him what was going on, I walked him through some of the meetings I had participated in recently, how little had been accomplished, how upset his people were. We had a long conversation — the good news was he wasn’t multitasking, he was totally focused on the conversation.  For the moment, he’s making a strong effort not to multitask–you can see small improvements in attitudes with his people already.  They see him listening, they know he is paying attention.

We see it everyday, sometimes I fall victim myself.  This morning, I had breakfast with some colleagues.  It started with each of us conversing while tweeting, reading texts, looking at emails, distracted by people wandering the hotel lobby—we decided to put away our devices and pay attention to our conversation.

I did notice the tables around us.  Filled with business professionals, all intent in their conversations,  but most distracted by the iPhones and Blackberry’s.  I wondered what was happening.

There are all sorts of studies talking about how bad multitasking is.  Most studies reach the conclusion that people are less productive multitasking, than if they focused on one thing, completed it, moved on to the next.

I’m convinced, too many multitask only as a narcissistic show, “look at how busy I am,”  “look at me, I have to do a lot of things at once.”  It’s funny, I meet with a number of very senior and truly exceptional leaders.  Each of them is confident, each of them is totally present.  When we meet, it’s us speaking with each other, paying attention, engaging, and being present.

Multi-tasking is the ultimate demonstration of your lack of respect—for those who you are not paying attention to, and to yourself.

Do you respect yourself and your time enough to be present in what you are doing?

Do you respect those you are working with enough to be present and engaged in the conversation, not letting anything else distract you?

From → Uncategorized

  1. Excellent article! I see this in my personal life as well, not just business. I remember there was an article a few years ago, essentially telling parents to put down the blackberry and start paying attention to their children. Strange times we live in.

    • Meagan: Thanks for the comment. It starts in the family, but needs to go to all our relationships-if we don’t care enough about the conversation, then we should not participate and waste others’ time.

  2. Being present is an indicator of being emotionally intelligent. The brain was never designed to multitask contrary to what some of us have been lead to believe. Congratulations for taking action and disconnecting from the individual. Not sure what the pressing issue is, but this individual may benefit from an EQ assessment.

    Great post and thanks for sharing,

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

  3. JaNohn Bowen permalink

    Megan, as a Mom, I can relate. We are a tech-savvy family. Sometimes, you have to put the electronic devices down, look someone in the eye and have a meaningful and purposeful conversation.

    In a recent meeting, some type of electronic device, buzzed or jingled at least three times. Although no one answered the device, it was a distraction to the conversation.

    David: I enjoy your articles. Like the others this one is timely. Multi tasking is not the key to improved performance. It is funny this article is being written. Earlier this week, I was thinking about how I can be intentional so my channel partners will be intentional. The day can get away from us as we multi-task. Whatever/whoever screams the loudest gets our focus. What if we were intentional about how we react, what is important and why we move with urgency?

    Any suggestions on that are truly welcomed.

    Wonderful article – keep them coming.

    Enjoy the upcoming holiday.

    • JaNohn: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I like your comment/queston about being “intentional” or purposeful. Your instincts are right on–you have to set the example by being purposeful in everything you do with your channel partners. I wish I had “the” answer. I think it’s a lot of small things that are consistently executed. For example, a published agenda for every meeting, follow up notes with committed action plans, tracking and follow up on those. Making sure that each interchange creates value—if you can’t figure that out in planning the meeting, then you aren’t ready for the meeting. Eliminating waste–for example, needless reports, adminsitrivia.

      The notions of intention and purposefulness are critical, but very tough. I think it fist starts with being conscious–I think too often we go unconscious, just going through the motions. We have to be conscious first, then we cand be intentional and purposeful.

      Very tough issues, but my sense is you are on the right track–the way you are expressing the ideas reali resonate with me. Feel free to contact me directly to talk more. Have a great Thanksgiving! Regards, Dave

  4. Tina Mora permalink

    This was an excellent article! I was impressed with the writer’s “guts” to set down boundaries of how he spent valuable time. It is tough to make that call sometimes! I will walk away from this more prepared to focus on one thing at a time, if for no other reason than to respect my colleagues!

    • Tina: Thanks for the nice comment. It’s actually not gutsy, it’s valuing yourself and your time. Even if it’s a customer or prospect, if they don’t value my time as I value theirs, then we are both wasting time. People respect that, it changes the quality of the relationship.

  5. Good article David.

    There is a concept called ‘continual partial attention’ that was coined by former Microsoft executive Linda Stone. Continual partial attention means that you are never fully present. My suggestion to my clients for being present and counter continual partial attention is DBAE (Don’t Be Anywhere Else).

    This practical technique involves simply writing DBAE at the top right corner of your notepad (eg. in a meeting) as a self-cuing device to remind you to be present in the meeting/interaction.

    Here is a link to my blog post on the topic.

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS