Leaders today are beset by overwhelming demands – scheduled every 15 minutes through the day, with an incoming barrage of messages via phone, email, texts, and knocks on the door. Who has time to pay full attention to the person you’re with?

And yet it is in the moments of total attention that interpersonal chemistry occurs. This is when what we say has the most impact, when we can come up with the most fruitful ideas and collaborations, when negotiations and brainstorms are most productive.

And it all starts with listening, turning our attention fully to the person we are with. It’s not just leaders, of course. We’re all besieged by distractions, falling behind on our to-do lists, multi-tasking.

A classic study of doctors and patients asked people in the physician’s waiting room how many questions they had for their doctor. The average was around four. The number of questions they actually asked during that visit with their doctor turned out to be about one-and-a-half. The reason? Once the patient started talking, an average of 16 seconds or so the doctor would cut them off and take over the conversation.

That’s a good analog for what happens in offices everywhere. We’re too busy (we think) to take the time to listen fully.

This leads to the common cold of the workplace: Tuning out of what that person is saying before we fully understand – and telling them what we think too soon. Real listening means hearing the person out and then responding, in a mutual dialogue.

So there you have a bad habit to replace – poor listening – and a positive alternative to practice instead.

People are notoriously poor at changing habits. Neuroscience findings make clear why: habits operate from the basal ganglia, in the unconscious part of the mind. They are automatic and most often invisible, even as they drive what we do.

This arrangement works well, for the most part. The basal ganglia’s repertoire of unconscious habits includes everything from how to operate your smartphone (once you’ve mastered the details) to how to brush your teeth. We don’t want to have to think about these routines – and our brain doesn’t want to waste on them the mental energy that would take.

But when it comes to our unhelpful habits, that arrangement creates a barrier to changing them for the better. We don’t notice them, and so have no control. We need to become consciously aware of the habit, which transfers control to the brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal area. This offers us a choice we did not have before.

The key is being mindful of those moments in your day when you have a naturally occurring opportunity to practice good listening. Most often those moments go by unnoticed and we launch into our old, bad habits.

Once you notice the moment is here, there’s another task for mindfulness: to remind you of the better habit. In this case, you would intentionally put aside what you’re doing, ignore your phone and email, stop your own train of thought – and pay full attention to the person in front of you.

Mindfulness is the secret ingredient in successful habit change.


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