Making Ear Contact

I’ve been thinking a lot about time and attention lately. They are two of the most valuable personal resources we have, and finding the best way to combine them into daily productive outcomes affects a lot of what I find myself writing about here.

It’s hard to think about attention without thinking of its biggest enemy: distraction. What distracts us from being attentive most? Is it the screens in front of us? Is it the little thoughts that keep popping up in our minds or buzzing notifications on our phones?

(I’m sorry, can you repeat the question? I wasn’t listening.)

So let’s examine listening for a moment. How do we demonstrate that, particularly in meetings or conversations that are meant to be productive? When we’re in a meeting or having a conversation with people, there are lots of ways we can show that we’re listening to the conversation. Making eye contact — looking at the face of the person who is talking — is the most direct way to show we’re  engaged and paying attention. But what if we can’t make eye contact with everyone we’re listening too? Or what if the conversation is on a conference call and not even in the same room?

In situations where we can’t make eye contact,  and until brain-to-brain teleprescence is perfected, I think we have to figure out how to make “ear contact” instead.

Just as making eye contact with another person reflects back important facial microexpressions and visual cues for them to see, I think of ear contact as a way of reflecting words and vocal microexpressions for others to hear. “Sure.” “Right.”  “Uh-huh.” These are all vocal equivalents of nodding agreement.

And when we can’t see who we’re talking with, it becomes even more important to reflect back comprehension as well. We can’t make a confused face or shake our heads. That’s why I never take part in a conference call without a pen and notepad to capture what I hear being said, and then make sure I reflect that back. “Can you clarify what you meant when you said…” or “I agree with what you said about…” or “I’d like to add to your point…”

Of course, notetaking like that is important in any meeting, whether you are in the same room with a person or not. But I feel it is especially vital in a phone meeting scenario. If you’re not being spoken to directly, there’s nothing wrong with listening in with your phone muted, but that doesn’t mean you stop paying attention.

Don’t end a productive phone call, or any meeting for that matter, without reviewing what you discussed and saying out loud what next steps and responsibilities remain for those involved. Reflect that back to yourself and others, so that even as our eyes turn back to the distractions of emails and screens, our ears still carry the echo of what will be important for our time and attention ahead.

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