Listen better and multitask worse

executive coach tips


You’re in the middle of typing an email, and a colleague walks in with a question. You look up, fingers still flying across your keyboard, and answer. You bring your laptop to a meeting, hoping to work double-duty, marking off to-dos as others talk. You pull out your phone during each stop in play at your daughter’s soccer game, making good use of every possible moment. And you later swear you absolutely saw her score the goal you actually missed when “just 10 seconds” inadvertently turned into 5 minutes.

Multitasking is often hailed as a useful skill. After all, we figure tackling multiple chores at once results in higher productivity, getting us closer and closer to that next benchmark. But what happens when multitasking takes the place of listening?

Back when I was less aware of how multitasking was affecting my relationships, I prided myself on typing and talking all at once. (I don’t even need to look at my keyboard!) What was I telling the colleague in front of me about what I valued? I’d also greet my husband as he walked through the door without putting down my phone. “How was your day?” I’d ask, half-listening for an answer. What was I telling him about how much I cared? I felt efficient. He likely felt jilted.

Chances are, if we’re doing two things at the same time, we’re doing one of them poorly. I’ve worked in a lot of environments (creative ones, especially) that celebrate the art of multitasking at the cost of human connection, and it always ended in half-baked work and relationships. The latter bothers me more.

On my quest to be more present, I made a point to close my laptop and put down my phone if a human being was in front of me. The results were palpable: more meaningful conversations, clarity around my work, fewer meetings to discuss previous meetings.

But if you feel that for you, it’s not that simple, here are a few tricks to being a better listener—and a bad multitasker:

1. Capture three facts during a conversation to replay. If you’re talking with a colleague, try to find small bits of information you can return to later. What if you remembered that they were visiting a relative in poor health this weekend and asked them about it on Monday? What if you knew they were nervous about an upcoming presentation and made sure to check in after it ended? Those kinds of conversations make for relationships that are satisfying and fruit-bearing.

2. Dig deeper. Start small by asking one follow-up question in every conversation you have today. It shows you are listening and that you are interested.

3. Designate a space for your device. My brother’s family has a no-phones-in-the-kitchen rule. The kitchen is for communing, and there’s no place for multitasking at the table. If you find yourself in bed, phone in hand, wasting precious time with your spouse as you scan social media, find a plug across the room, and leave your phone there to charge.

Multitasking doesn’t need to come at the cost of our presence. Show up for people and yourself.

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