The Gift of Undivided Attention

December 13, 2009

As we head into this holiday season, it’s time to start thinking about gifts – big gifts, small gifts, expensive gifts, cheap gifts, obligatory gifts and thoughtful gifts.   Perhaps one of the most thoughtful gifts of all, is one that doesn’t cost a thing.

Doesn’t it seem like undivided attention is going the way of the dinosaur?

Several months ago, I was introduced to a writer/consultant by a colleague who thought we’d have good information and contacts to share.  It turned out we were both in NY at the same time, so we met for a drink in a small, trendy bar outside of Grand Central Station.  After a comfortable and informative introduction, he mentioned that their family’s new nanny was starting that day and we shared stories about kids and their care givers.  In the 90 minutes that we spoke, he took several phone calls about the nanny and some business dealings that were time critical.  The calls were fairly short, and he answered each call apologetically.  I wasn’t angry or insulted, but I was uncomfortable as I just sat there while he was on the phone.  I found it embarrassing to be doing nothing while waiting for his phone conversation to end.  I eventually pulled out my notebook and started writing as each new call began.  I know he meant no offense at all by taking these calls, and I did understand why they were a higher priority than our conversation.  The reason I understand this so well is because I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done this to someone else.

The other day, my son wanted to show me how a marble went through his very elaborate marble run.  “Look, Mommy, look!” he implored until I turned away from my email  to look at his structure.  He let the marble go.  I watched for a moment.  Then, without even knowing I did it, I turned back to my email.  When the marble landed at the end, he said, “Wasn’t that great?”  “It was!” I responded.  Then he said, “I’m going to do it again, and this time you actually have to look.”  Busted!  I couldn’t seem to tear myself away from email for the minute it took for the marble to go through that run.

Before you think I’m a terrible parent, I should mention that he does the same thing to me.  We’ll be riding in the car having a conversation, and the next thing I know, he’s playing with the GPS. “I was talking to you,” I said.  And he responded, “I know, I was listening.”  Then I said, “You weren’t listening, you were playing.”  And he responded, “I was listening enough.”

That “enough” got me thinking:

When my students use their laptops during class, and I know they’re not all taking notes, are they listening enough? 

When business people  in a group meeting with laptops open are listening with one part of the brain, but composing an email with the other, are they listening enough?

When you’re on the phone with someone and you hear that light tapping noise in the background, is that listening enough?

I don’t really know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we’ve hit a point in general communication where productivity, perceived or otherwise, trumps manners.

So, perhaps, as we think about gifts this holiday season, we should all consider giving the people in our lives the gift of undivided attention.

They’ll love it!

Happy Holidays!!!

Laura

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