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Conquering the corporate disease of 'fake listening'

Published:Sunday | October 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST
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Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Just a few years ago, it hardly ever happened. Talking with someone while they furiously multitasked was something rare, and often seen as a sign of sheer bad manners. It wasn't done.

Now it's become the norm, and for some people, an irresistible habit. In the middle of a phone call, a meeting, or just a simple conversation, their attention shifts. In their mind they are still listening, but if you ever have been on the receiving end, you know the difference: they have started 'fake listening'.

You know that they are 'fake listening' by the tell-tale lag in their response. All of a sudden, they fall out of sync, taking just a little too long to reply to your last comment. At that moment, you have lost their full attention. They have stopped listening and instead, started to pretend.

They hope that you won't mind, or perhaps even notice, as they try to get one more thing done, on top of the conversation they are having with you.

While technology isn't a requirement, today's mobile gadgets have fuelled the epidemic.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of research showing that there is no such thing as effective multi-tasking if it involves splitting your attention. Instead, studies show the emotional satisfaction you feel is just the mind tricking itself.

It's a mistake we all make - we believe that if nobody complains, they aren't noticing or don't care. The truth, of course, is quite different. When the conversation is important, other people can instantly tell when there's a lapse in our responses.

How can our productivity be restored, and this practice remedied?

1. Go Cold Turkey

If you are committed to ending the practice of 'fake listening', try cutting out distractions altogether. You'll experience a boost in your productivity by reducing the phenomena of switch-tasking, which takes place whenever you try to multitask. It refers to the fact that you are actually switching rapidly from one task to another, rather than truly doing them in parallel.

2. Ask People Around You

Find an honest way to get other people's feedback. Ask them if they would prefer that you not multitask while having a conversation. Some will say they don't mind - especially if they report to you - but you might get the input you need to stop the practice altogether. Treat this kind of information as gold. It could change the course of your career for the better.

3. Observe Other People

If the above methods don't work, try paying special attention to your colleagues who use fake listening techniques when you are the one talking. Notice your irritation rising from not getting the attention you want. If they outrank you, don't overlook the power dynamic; fake listening is often used by those who have power.

4. Follow the Research

If you can't get the input you need from your immediate environment, do your own research. There are lots of articles on the topic that tell a consistent story; people who think they are good at

fake listening are more often the worst.

Don't be tricked by what is accepted in your company by you and your colleagues. Look for articles, such as this one, that point to world-class practices.

The good news is that if you are an executive who multitasks, understand that others are taking their cues from you. I have worked with senior teams in which meetings drag on because only half the team is paying attention.

On the other hand, a positive shift in your behaviour might be remarkable and lead to a ripple effect that makes a deep difference. It should extend past your job to your spouse, kids, and friends.

Some might say that fake listening is just plain 'facety', rude, and out-of-order - words that old-time Jamaicans would use freely. While Granny may not have owned a smartphone, or knew anyone who used one, she would readily recognise our distracted behaviour as a case of poor manners.

In today's corporations, however, etiquette is hardly a topic that's taught; the assumption is that you should have learned it somewhere else. Instead, the priority is on profit-making, and having nice manners is seen as far less important than this month's revenue targets.

However, fake listening is deeply unproductive, and it's a pity that new technology doesn't come with this warning printed on the outside of the box: 'Might Be Dangerous to Your Productivity'.

Any gadget that leads us to do more fake listening needs to be handled carefully to prevent harm.

Too many companies are avoiding frank conversations on this topic. They need to be more forthright and, as Granny would put it, just stop the foolishness.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com