One of the most common questions clients ask me after I’ve completed an interview or interrogation is, “How do you feel?” I usually surprise them when I respond with, “Tired.”
Having a conversation with another person is a complicated affair. You have to simultaneously contribute your thoughts, listen to your counterpart’s thoughts, evaluate how your counterpart is responding to you, plan your next contribution and remember everything you are saying and hearing. This becomes more difficult as more people enter the conversations. Emotional flare-ups can significantly impact your ability to successfully complete these tasks as well.
One of the most common questions I am asked by clients when I am training is, “How is it possible to observe so much of your counterpart’s verbal and non-verbal behavior in real time during a conversation?”
The answer is Magic.
Think about being entertained by a magician. Magicians rely on six things – thorough preparation, misdirection, surprise, and practice, practice, practice. First they practice their techniques until they become seamless. Then during their performances they continuously lead your attention away from what they don’t want you to see, and they surprise you with things you didn’t expect to occur. Magicians are successful because they fine-tune their craft. They also capitalize on the fact that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and we are more likely to miss observing things when we don’t expect them to happen.
It is true that our brains can only focus on one thing at time. The more we multi-task, the less attention we bring to each individual task. This means that during a conversation, you miss so much of our counterparts’ messages when you are focusing one what you are going to say next. When you’re not completely focused it can be just as difficult to determine exactly what your counterparts are saying as it is to catch how magicians pull of their tricks.
You can make two adjustments to quickly increase the amount of verbal and non-verbal behavior you observe and evaluate:
- Memorize what you want to say before the conversation starts
- Create a structure for the conversation to follow
Similar to a game of chess, you want to plan for as many moves as possible. This means you need to plan for the topics you want to discuss and how you plan to present them. It also means preparing for your counterparts’ most likely reactions and planning your responses before the conversation starts. By memorizing, or at least becoming comfortable with, your half of the conversation ahead of time you can focus your cognitive resources on observing and evaluating your counterparts’ communications during the conversation.
Picture the last care accident you witnessed. Do you remember the color, make and model of all the vehicles involved? Probably not. You probably remember the general details like where the accident occurred, but you weren’t expecting to see a car accident so didn’t know to be ready to remember the specific details. An equally important piece of your preparation is creating a structure for the conversation. The structure allows you to anticipate when you will be discussing each topic. This anticipation causes you to be ready to observe the entire message, integrate new information into your strategy and retain what you observed.
Yes, contrary to popular belief, talking is the most important part of listening. You create a significant advantage for yourself when you prepare what you want to say ahead of the conversation. You reduce distractions, allow yourself to observe more behavior, gather more useful information and conserve your cognitive resources to make better decisions.